Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden, Rupert Evans
Written by: Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Briggs, based on the comic book by Mike Mignola
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and frightening images
Running Time: 122
Date: 03/30/2004

Hellboy (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Get 'Hell' Soon

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects," one character says in the new movie Hellboy. That statement might go a long way toward explaining the sheer appeal of this new hero and why Hellboy is so much fun.

Based on comic books by Mike Mignola, the movie opens with a silly prologue done with the kind of bluster usually reserved for the Flash Gordon serials. During WWII, the Nazis, aided by occultists, summon a creature from hell to help destroy the earth. Fortunately, the good guys intervene and the creature is "adopted" by Professor Broom, dubbed "Hellboy" and raised to fight evil monsters. The U.S. government funds a secret organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense in their honor. Hellboy grows up to become a red-skinned hulk with sawed-off devil horns (he's ashamed of them) and a mallet-sized right fist made out of rock. He also has a thing for kittens.

But of course, we can't have a movie about Hellboy saving the local corner store from burglars. He has to stop evil madmen from taking over and/or destroying the world. Sadly, the bad guys are the same ones from the prologue, only they're immortal and they have no personalities to speak of. They've unleashed an alien/predator that snarls a lot and keeps reproducing. The movie inevitably drags a bit when dealing with these boring baddies. But when Hellboy is on screen, the movie crackles. The very talented writer/director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Blade II) and co-writer Peter Briggs (an early draft of Alien vs. Predator) give Hellboy the mythic treatment by describing his personality quirks when he's not around ("he likes this," "he doesn't like that," "don't stare at his horns," etc.) -- thereby building him up for us.

However, actor Ron Perlman (Blade II) occupies Hellboy with more than enough humanity to ground him. We go in expecting a god and, to our delight, we get something akin to a New York cabbie. When he takes a spill during a fight, Hellboy takes an extra second to sigh and mutter something before getting back up again. For his sidekicks, Hellboy hangs with his father figure, the aged and dying Professor (John Hurt), a fresh-faced FBI recruit (Rupert Evans), an aquatic man-creature called Abe Sapien (embodied by contortionist Doug Jones and voiced -- without credit -- by David Hyde Pierce) and a "firestarter," Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) on whom Hellboy has an unquenchable crush.

For laughs, a stuffy bureaucrat (Jeffrey Tambor) is on hand to complain about costs and damages and whatnot. Del Toro manages to give Tambor a great moment, when, after a close call, he teaches Hellboy how to properly light a cigar. Del Toro bathes the film in his trademark look; he's obsessed with twirling gears and clockworks juxtaposed with crumbling castles pelted by dark rain. His action sequences are fast and brief but relatively clear. The computer effects are also better than usual. In one lovely shot, Liz demonstrates her newfound control over her fire. Her hand ignites in a soft blue blaze, and just behind it the heat makes her face shimmer. Overall, Hellboy is a hot time in the old town, a great comic book movie writ large. At one point, just before diving into a sewer swimming with beasties, Abe quips to Hellboy, "we lead a charmed life." Indubitably.

Columbia TriStar's extraordinary new 2-disc Hellboy DVD is undoubtedly one of the best I've ever seen, marred only by the fact that they will be releasing an "extended version" sometime soon, which will either keep people from looking at this one, or necessitate owning both. For starters, the image and sound transfer are as close to perfection as one can detect with the human eye. Every conceivable extra is here. We have a video introduction by Guillermo Del Toro. We have two commentary tracks, one by Del Toro and one by cast members Perlman, Blair, Tambor and Evans. We have two "branching" tracks, one with new DVD comics -- written by Del Toro and drawn by Mike Mignola -- and one with visits to the set. We have a storyboard track and DVD-Rom features, including a complete, printable screenplay, the script supervisor's book and excerpts from Del Toro's notebook.

On Disc Two, we have a 2-1/2 hour documentary on the making of the film, which actually includes behind the scenes footage and not just talking heads, a video introduction by Blair, deleted scenes with optional commentary, character bios, filmographies, trailers and TV spots, posters, 3-D character sculptures, animatics, motion board-a-matics, weblinks, trailers for other Columbia TriStar releases (Spider-Man 2, etc.) and Easter eggs. But here's the clincher: the disc also includes four cartoons, which can be partially seen in the film playing on televisions in Hellboy's room. The first one is none other than the classic, award-winning Gerald McBoing Boing (1951), written by Dr. Seuss. In addition, there are two more Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons, and an animated version of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, narrated by James Mason. Do not miss this disc, which is sure to find a place on my list of the year's best. See also: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).

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