I didn’t want this movie to be a buddy movie…
I wanted to have a real dislike.
—Guillermo del Toro, commentary, Hellboy
Nobody helps me!
—Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Hellboy
I had a hand person, and a tail person, and I had a codpiece person.
—Ron Perlman, commentary track, Hellboy
“That is a Mignola-esque frame,” enthuses director Guillermo del Toro, spotting a shot of Hellboy, standing in near-silhouette against a deeply shadowed background, looming hugely from a low angle. Speaking in his commentary track, del Toro is keenly passionate about the film, the character, and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, also the film’s co-executive producer and del Toro’s fellow observer on the track. The two friends provide a delightfully detailed set of observations (and generally more technical and specific than the second commentary track, by cast members Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, and Rupert Evans).
As embodied by magnificent Ron Perlman, Hellboy is the latest beloved-comic-book-based movie to come down the big screen pike. He’s red and prodigious, glowering from rooftops and puffing on his cigar, swaggery and slightly slouchy, with a prominent forehead and impressively misshapen right forearm, made of stone and gigantor-sized. He’s fond of pancakes, chili, and a girl named Liz. Like all comic book movies, Hellboy is simultaneously burdened and buoyed by fan expectations. Conceived and written in collusion with Mignola, the movie includes details and favorite characters to please proudly self-described “geeks,” as more general, easily identifiable appeals to non-aficionados.
While occasionally derivative, the movie also tweaks and satirizes conventions. The hero’s origin story, for instance, involves not only a dark and scary night and Nazis, but also a makeshift familial unit and the establishment of enemies for life. Thus, in 1944, a crew of Nazi scientists, led by no less a villain than the resurrected (and castrated) monk Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden), is cooking up a portal to hell, which will unleash assorted demons, massive tentacles, and basic chaos, and basically kill the world. Some Allied troops arrive just in time to thwart the experiment, accompanied by one Dr. Broom Bruttenholm (played for this pre-credits sequence by Kevin Trainor, and thereafter by John Hurt in a fright wig).
The doctor’s primary function, aside from narrating the action, is to adopt the little dollop of hell served up by the aborted evildoing: the adorable Hellboy, whom he seduces with a Baby Ruth. Cut forward—via a tabloid headlines montage that chronicle Bigfoot-style sightings and government denials of Hellboy—to present day, when the grown-up Hellboy is working with his adoptive dad for the wholly unacknowledged U.S. Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, battling monsters with fishy empath Abe Sapien (embodied by mime Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde-Pierce, channeling C-3PO), daily filing his devil’s horns (so he can “fit in”), and yearning for his one true love, firestarter Liz (Selma Blair), who has recently left the BPRD for an institution, where she’s endeavoring to control her powers, that is, be “normal.” (“I like melodrama, I cannot hide it, I’m Mexican. And I love the moments of pure unadulterated melodrama in this movie,” says del Toro. “Unapologetic!” adds Mignola.)
While Liz’s blue-flamey spurts are the film’s weakest effects, its best is certainly Ron Perlman. He is, to be sure, always great, in tv’s Beauty and the Beast, and in a series of collaborations with directors with particular interests in gloomily intricate surfaces, namely Jean-Pierre Jeunet (with whom he worked in Le cité des enfants perdus  and Alien: Resurrection ), and del Toro (Cronos  and Blade II ). Here again, he is terrific, whether delivering not-so-clever one-liners (“I’m fireproof, you’re not”) or scribbling undelivered love notes to Liz. The 54-year-old Perlman, aided considerably by Rock Baker’s sensational makeup, makes you wish the rest of the movie might keep up with him.
Watching the movie again, on Columbia’s splendid DVD, you might appreciate even more fully the sheer love that when into the production. Certainly, every image is staged meticulously (del Toro says he included every one in a journal, that the crew then endeavored to hit, shot by shot). The first disc on this two-disc DVD set includes, aside from the commentary tracks, eight branching DVD comics drawn by Mignola and written by del Toro, specifically for the DVD release; “The Right Hand of Doom: Branching Set Visits” (storyboards by Simeon Wilkins); and “From the Den,” a selection of short films “recommended” by Hellboy, including “Gerald McBoing Boing,” “Gerald McBoing Boing on Planet Moo,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
The second disc is chucky full of extras, divided into niftily named sections. “Egg Chamber,” includes “Hellboy: Seeds of Creation,” a two-and-a-half hour documentary on the film’s creation and deleted scenes, as well as character biographies by del Toro. The next section, “Kroenen’s Lair,” includes a two-minute storyboard featurette hosted by del Toro; an animatics featurette that shows how sketches, storyboards, and CGI build to a scene; “Board-a-Matics,” offers animated storyboards of action scenes; and “Storyboard Comparisons” show difference from drawing to film; the “Maquette Video Gallery,” a collection of 3-D character models; and “Bellamie Hospital,” all about the film’s marketing.
While it’s not always the case in special edition DVDs, here, most of the extras bolster the experience of the film. That’s helpful, as the movie borrows plot points from Ghostbusters, the Alien franchise, The X-Files, X-Men, and Beauty and the Beast, as well as H.P. Lovecraft. Hellboy sets its hero in a series of expected conflicts. First, he’s got to stop those odious Nazis: the re-resurrected Rasputin, his devoted and rather she-wolfy lady-love Ilsa (Biddy Hodson, whose one-note role is not a little tedious), and the gas-masked Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), an erstwhile human so over-operated-on that now his blood is turned to dust and he lacks eyelids or lips (del Toro loves this guy, occasionally played by a woman during contortions, saying he’s “a clockwork, undead, surgery-addicted Nazi, which is definitely my cup of tea”). Kroenen also deploys flashy ninja-style swordsmanship and wirework (multiple stunt people and CGI created the character). In keeping with their self-interest, they’ve devised a creature, the Hound of Resurrection, Sammael (Brian Steele, plus lots of CGI), whose death each time results in the birth of two more, from eggs laid in the subway.
Hellboy’s memorable subway station fight with this creature (Mignola notes the director’s “subway fixation”), as del Toro observes, is premised on the concept that the film could not “use gore.” So, he says, “Instead of blood flying around, we used coins, saliva, things that are kinetic, and demonstrate the power of the blows, but they are not gory. This film was from the get-go conceived as a PG-13 movie, where the violence would be comic-book-like, but not damaging.”
Our hero’s other nemesis is a more familiar type: the grumpy BPRD Agent Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) distrusts that monsters (Hellboy, Abe, and Liz) are on point for the fight against monsters “You have an insight,” Tom sneers. You know monsters”). As tough as he pretends to be, Tom is, of course, terminally fearful of otherness, thus serving as the traditional comic book phobe (such that his narrow-mindedness might stand in for racism, misogyny, or homophobia). Hellboy’s outrageous otherness—even with the horns assiduously filed, there’s no way he can pass for non-other on the street—makes him the ideal object of abhorrence for Tom, who tends to mutter grand threats about shutting down the unit, much as The X-Files’ anxious boss men used to do.
Being the outlaw agrees with Hellboy, of course (he is a demon, even for the moral sense Broom has instilled in him). Affectionately codenamed “Red” by his fellow agents, he revels in being a bit of a loose cannon (regularly “escaping” from his secret room at BPRD to visit Liz at the hospital, or going off on missions that aren’t precisely authorized), he’s also rather awkward socially, tending to enter into dangerous situations solo and understand protecting the world as his own lot in life; as Abe describes it, he’s into “the whole lonely hero thing.”
This sense of destiny makes him skeptical of the straight-laced FBI agent Broom recruits to look after him (Broom seeing the end of his own days, whether or not the world survives the Rasputin-engineered Armageddon). Young John Myers (Rupert Evans) is as dull a pretty boy as you might wish for, duly eclipsed by Hellboy’s energetically dour affect. Still, his very normalcy appeals to Liz (or at least, this is what Hellboy intuits, watching her face closely for the slightest sign of interest), which muddles Hellboy’s feelings toward him.
His confusion makes him endearing. While the BPRD goes through any number of action scenes in their efforts to stop Rasputin’s scheme, the most entertaining scenes are those focused on Hellboy’s mundane romantic travails. So, when Liz goes out for a little park bench coffee with John, Hellboy leaps over a few rooftops in order to position himself above them and across the street. Here the 8-1/2 feet tall monster is discovered by a boy tending pigeons (“Hey, you’re Hellboy!”), whom he swears to secrecy because, he whispers, he’s “on a mission.” With that, the pair begins a vigil of sorts, watching the conversation and John’s clumsy flirtation, the kid providing milk and cookies and advice: “Tell her how you feel.” “It’s not that easy,” Hellboy sighs. “Plus, you’re nine.”
Such witty moments help alleviate the film’s more unwieldy and banal machinations (the digital effects, save for Hellboy himself, are especially unconvincing). At times, Hellboy seems unsure of how to handle this “working class” hero (though this is the usual designation for the indestructible Hellboy, it must be said that he is equipped, courtesy of a government budget, with state of the art anti-monster weaponry and gadgets). A vengeance-motivated hero—that is, a hero for this particular moment in U.S. history, at least, Hellboy serves up well-motivated, gaudy violence. It’s a fantasy for viewers who are feeling either disenfranchised and deceived, or righteous and deserving. Demonically, Hellboy works for both.