By Kyle G. King. This is RETROGRADING, where we’re not a very good shot, but the Samaritan here uses really big bullets.

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THE FILM: Hellboy

THE TIME: 2004, at a time when all the studios were snatching up every comic book property they could turn a profit on, Guillermo del Toro snuck into the zeitgeist with a passion project.

RECOLLECTIONS: Bringing a devil-like man-beast from another dimension to the screen is one thing, but a man-beast that’s also a gruff crime-fighting anti-hero… that required a refined taste for the macabre. While Guillermo del Toro proved he could have loads of gothic fun bringing brooding strongmen to the screen with Blade II, Hellboy was the filmmaker delving into newer and even stranger territory than ever before.

Demanding a lot more from the makeup and prosthetics department than what they were probably used to, Del Toro surgically implanted the Lovecraftian aesthetic found from over a decade of source material in Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse comic book into Hellboy. The blacks, blues, greens, yellows, and most of all the reds in Hellboy are dark, rusty, and lived-in, which helped to bridge the gap between the paranormal and the film’s more conventional New York City backdrop. Hellboy himself is very much a lived-in character, speaking coyly from behind a cigar with the Brooklyn tone of a man who has most definitely “seen some shit.” It may be hard to recognize Ron Perlman’s mug from behind all those prosthetics, but his voice and demeanor, combined with a whole lot of red paint, effectively brought the character from the comics page to the big screen with a minimum of fuss. 

The movie is at its most fun when the director and his cast are left to play with the characters that they so clearly love, but all play and no work can still make a semi-dull boy. Hellboy slogs around with little resolve and gets into dust-ups with demons without so much as breaking a sweat, which means his acerbic wit and angsty love affairs aren’t fully enough to truly humanize him. After being punted out of a room and swallowed whole by a tentacle monster, it’s hard to empathize with any of the danger that surrounds him. He’s an indestructible seed of destruction, stylishly cool but quickly one-note once the danger arrives.

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THE DIRECTOR: Hellboy would have (and should have) never happened without Guillermo del Toro. Coming off the creative success of The Devil’s Backbone and gathering an industry merit badge with Blade II, Del Toro knew what he wanted out of this project and had earned the freedom to make it so. Though “freedom” in Hollywood still means constant bickering with studio execs about casting and rewrites, Del Toro still won his battles — he avoided near disaster by casting Vin Diesel and Nicholas Cage in the title role, and he kept the studio from morphing Hellboy into a Hulk-like transforming humanoid. His passionate fanboy appreciation, paired with his auteur sensibilities, remains unmatched to this day.

Turning down Blade: Trinity, Alien vs. Predator, and even the third Harry Potter movie in order to make what he considered his dream project, Del Toro’s fascination with the character turned out to be contagious. The blend of medieval romance mixed with paranormal gadgetry was stylishly ahead of its time, before steampunk smacked pop culture over the head with a sack of oily gears. It’s obvious Del Toro’s most acclaimed film, Pan’s Labyrinth, owes a lot to Hellboy, as the filmmaker explored themes of wonder, monsters, and war torn realities here first. In Hellboy, the master director begins to find his novelistic touch for cinema, and all his work thereafter has been the better for it.

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THE CAST: A hero is only as strong as his sidekicks and antagonists, and Hellboy is loaded with fun and strange characters. From Doug Jones as gangly fish-boy Abe Sapien to Ladislav Beran as immortal ninja Nazi assassin made of sand, Hellboy explodes with cool action pieces with dynamic fighters that few movies can hold a candle to. If Del Toro is the only person who could’ve brought Hellboy to the screen, the only person that could’ve ever played him was Ron Perlman. Outside of the makeup, Perlman merely looks like he’s from the pages of a comic, but surrounded by drooling hell beasts? He carries himself inside Hellboy’s trademark brown duster like proper cowboy.

On the more human side, John Hurt does great things with a thankless father role. Selma Blair broods as “don’t call me a firestarter” BPRD ex-pat Liz Sherman. While the love connection between her and Hellboy never feels quite as hot as her herself (re: she starts fires), both characters ooze enough teenage malaise that it still seems natural, if lukewarm.

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NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Hellboy rides the line between nostalgia and nightmare, but it’s a nightmare where a friendly beast holds your hand and fights for the good of all mankind. There’s something lurking under it that remains untapped, but Hellboy remains a hell of a good time because of the people who cared about it. If nothing else, it reminds us that all it takes is a geeked-out director (whose last name isn’t Snyder) to make comic book movies fun.

RETROGRADE: 7.5 out of 10

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