Oh, how do you solve a problem like 'Hellboy'? Mike Mignola's iconic red superhero, a visual hybrid of Satan and a shaved Gorilla who spends his time punching Nazi robots and figures of Russian folklore in equal measure, was up for a rare Dark Horse movie adaptation. How the traditionally skittish studio heads came to this decision was mysterious, as Hellboy was neither a recognizable brand outside of the comic shop or something the tykes of middle America would buy an action figures of. The franchise was weird and so they gave it to a weird guy; future jefe of geekdom Guillermo Del Toro. However even Del Toro, sitting in his Los Angeles man cave surrounded by jars of preserved fetuses and parchment drawings of dead gods, must have known that 'Hellboy' was a massive gamble with audiences. How does one bring the Right Hand of Doom to the Summer movie crowds? The result was a film that both tamped weirdness commercially back while letting other parts relax into the strange. Hazard a guess which parts were more fun?
While Del Toro was a kindred spirit to Mignola, one of the first things you notice about 'Hellboy' is the little choices made to make the world a little more broadly recognizable. The BRPD is a more modern institution in the film than the comics, another post-'Men in Black' organization with a cheeky blasé attitude about the unhuman world they police and a glossy brushed steel underground headquarters. Less vintage cargo planes and more secret garbage truck bases. Instead of feeling like a cop-out however this lent to the contrast between the mystic world and the human one. During an investigation at a museum we see a lobby filled with men in identical black suits and the amphibious Abe Sapian in a glowing high-tech breathing device. To research the threat however, Abe relies on a fragile looking wooden box containing carefully organized dusty vials of fluid and books with thin creased leather covers. It was a subtle contrast not acknowledged verbally, but communicated that when dealing with the world of magic old is better.
The film was also extremely pretty to look at. Every major motion picture has an extraordinary artistic team behind it but there's a marked difference when the filmmaker directing the team clearly knows what they want. During the opening scene Rasputin puts on a glove with rotating metal rings and glowing bulbs and one feels like demanding the film stop what it's doing and just let us get in close to look at it. From he glass cases on the walk to Hellboy's vault/lair to the Mignolaesque simplicity of the climactic keyhole monolith, there's a sense of care and detail that seems to be Del Toro's speciality, and it sometimes feels like a shame when so much of it is whisked past. The film's color correction is a little heavy-handed at times, a notable symptom of its time, but contrasted by meaningful art design.
It seems Ron Perlman was born to play Hellboy. A character actor with a long history of supporting roles, Perlman very rarely got to play heroes, more regularly cast as vicious dicks ('Blade II', 'Alien: Resurrection') or henchmen monsters ('Star Trek: Nemesis', 'The Island of Doctor Moreau'). While still hidden under pounds of latex appliances, this time Perlman got center stage and showed off his capabilities a leading man. His Hellboy has a rumpled cockyness and grumbling charisma reminiscent of Harrison Ford's best years, serving as the real draw for the film and capable of shrugging off some of the flimsiness of the story. There's also more than a little adolescence to the character, a seven-foot monster-punching demon with a case of arrested development, most often drawn out in the presence of his adopted father and girlfriend. While there's plenty of blasting guns and prolonged fisticuffs Perlman regularly gives the films its best material in the infirm, whether jealously stalking his girlfriend from the rooftops or busting a resurrected corpses chops. If there were one pressing need for a third 'Hellboy' film it would be Perlman giving us more of that character.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jonathan Meyers, an original character added to the film as 'de-weirder'. Meyers was an outside agent, brought into the world of the BRPD to serve as a sort of handler for Hellboy since Hellboy's father Professor Bruttenholm is secretly dying of cancer. The reasons for this aren't especially clear since Broom seems to have a spontaneous trust in a complete outsider to handle a job of great emotional complexity and that Hellboy doesn't seem readily controllable by anyone. The electronic tracker Hellboy wears had a switch to turn it off and all Meyers could do to keep him from joyriding was to fruitlessly bleat after him.
In actuality, Meyers was an audience proxy, an individual who can receive exposition from other characters as he is as new to the world as the viewer. Unfortunately the film seems to confuse itself about who the protagonist was as Meyers was given a half-finished character arc and even introduced mild conflict by clumsily forming a romantic triangle with Hellboy's girlfriend Liz Sherman. In keeping with the 'Men in Black' parallels a lot of Meyers' plot seemed to be a milquetoast quipless version of Will Smith's Agent J, but I felt vibes of a different character from another science-fiction franchise. In one conversation with the elderly Professor, Meyers claimed he wasn't the right person for the job and it sounded down to the inflection like Mark Hamill telling Alec Guinness that he had to get back to the moisture farm. Actor Rupert Evans did his unpopular job admirably, but as the finale swept around converting him into a questionably useful observer his lack of resolution made his inclusion feel like a tack added by the studio, and he was wisely excised from the superior sequel.
Meyers wasn't the only odd attempt to try to make this occult fantasy more palatable to the crowds. Cult favorite Doug Jones, who played Abe Sapian, had his voice dubbed over by 'Frasier' star David Hyde Pierce, who in the early part of the last decade had his voice in practically everything. It was a predictable but disappointing move on the part of the studio, made bizarre by Pierce himself, who apparently out of respect for Jones had his credit removed from the final film, eliminating the point of the dub. Jones would later go on to serve as the voice of Abe in the sequel as well as the animated films and the video game, but I've always thought a cut of 'Hellboy' with his original vocal performance would be something that fans would appreciate seeing on video.
The plot is a sticky point for 'Hellboy', not bad but forgettable and unsubstantial. It centers around the return of Rasputin, the famed Russian mystic and his plan to use Hellboy to open the door between our world and a prison for Lovecraftian gods. Events happen between the opening and the conclusion, but very few seem to relate to this. Rasputin releases an unkillable amphibian monster, triggers Liz's pryomancy to devastating effect, and kills Bruttenholm all with only the vaguest association with his actual motivations. While actor Karl Roden does what he can with the little he is given there's simply not a lot of villainy to be had, upstaged by the frog demons and Hitler's ninja.
Hellboy and Meyers both have semi-arcs in the film, but are often incomplete or underdeveloped. There's a running theme of Hellboy's childish rebellions against his father's will, but bizarrely Hellboy and Bruttenholm share very few scenes together while he is alive, developing no onscreen relationship. Unlike films like 'Daredevil' the plot doesn't feel lazy as much as weirdly unfinished feeling, as if for one reason or another scenes simply didn't get shot or written. It isn't especially distracting while watching the film, but noticeable when thinking back afterwards and having a hard time remember much other than specific beats or dialogue.
For being a Del Toro film the effects still suffered a bit thanks to the limits and mistakes that were frequent in the years around 2004. The monster Samael, the primary creature effect of the film, was accomplished with a combination of practical effects and CGI, with quite a bit of Ron Perlman tussling with a rubber suit. The suit is well designed, that wonderful middle ground of goofy and cool that only animatronics and rubber can find, but it was heavy and moved slowly. When the effect was CGI, Samael achieved a raptor like quickness and flexibility, apparently intended to be authentically intimidating. The disparity between the practical and the digital effects became distracting, as one was challenged to connect the two effects together as one creature, something Del Toro wrestled with in his previous comic movie 'Blade II'.
'Hellboy' is a straight-forward example of Del Toro when he makes blockbusters; short on developed story but high on detail and charisma. There was a bit more studio tinkering visible in the film then even his earlier Blade movie, but the performances and Del Toro's personal fetishes helped elevate the film to an enjoyable if slightly forgettable fantasy. After the climax, with the Elder Gods safely remaining in the Phantom Zone, Meyers awkwardly watched Hellboy and Liz make out while on fire, using voice-over narration to muse 'what makes a man'. While a serviceable and likable entry in the genre, it took a sequel for the studio to back off and trust the audience to be able to ask those questions themselves.