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Uncle Sam's monsters
A region 3 DVD review of HELLBOY by Slarek
 

Here's a not that surprising fact for you: a lot of film geeks started out as comic book geeks, and a great many of them still are. A fair number of Hollywood directors and genre film writers also appear to have been raised on such a literary diet, and to this day many filmmakers, even at the humblest level, create storyboards of sequences before committing them to film, which are in essence comic book versions of the finished product. The adolescent love of comic books is hardly surprising – in their heyday they offered many of the same escapist pleasures as action or fantasy films, but with the added bonus that the hero who got to beat up the bad guys was often not a squeaky clean example of careful breeding and expensive dental work but a misfit, someone who, even though he was different to everyone else, could still show the world what he was made of and make a solid contribution to society.

The problem with the critical evaluation of many of the more recent cinematic adaptations of comic books is that the reviews in question are often also written by the comic book geeks, who have only one key requirement of the film version: is it faithful to the original? This means that as long as the character looks and behaves as he did on the printed page, as long as the film-maker has recreated on film – which is a completely different medium – the stylistics and moral and character thrust of the comic book on which it is based, then all else is considered secondary. That the vast majority of these stories have essentially the same plot and characters seems to be of little consequence. As a rare film geek who was not raised on comic books – I admired the artwork but, as someone who regularly kicked against the system, always had issues with so-called superheroes who used their powers to uphold the status quo – I take issue with this. As far as I am concerned, if the plot, dialogue and character detail are either below par or simply rehashed from elsewhere, then quite frankly being faithful to the original comic book counts for bugger all.

I can't be the only fantasy fan who has come to the latest film from Guillermo del Toro, the hugely talented and enormously likeable director of the inventive vampire movie Cronos, the energetic and enjoyable Blade II and the frankly superb The Devil's Backbone with high expectations. Del Toro is an imaginative and dedicated craftsman and movie buff, and his typically excellent commentary track on the Blade II DVD revealed the extent of his knowledge and love of comic books. Though he brought much of his own vision to that film, it was a sequel to a successful original and the scene was, to a large extent, already set. But Hellboy was to be del Toro's project – he would write and direct and could have the splendid Ron Perlman, with whom he had worked twice before and for whom he clearly has great respect, in the title role. A guaranteed corker, then. Well, no, actually. At a time when we are being overrun with comic book adaptations, most of which play to a limited and largely predictable formula, any new one needs something real special to make it stand out, and Hellboy not only doesn't have it, but is lacking in areas that should be a given for even moderately budgeted works of this type.

During World War 2, a US military assault foils the attempts of a Nazi paranormal division, one that under the guidance of ex-mad monk Rasputin is attempting to open a gateway to Hell and summon forth a gigantic and destructive demon. During the brief time that the gateway is open, a small demon escapes into the world of humans and is adopted by the knowledgeable Professor Trevor 'Broom' Bruttenholm, the man who has been guiding the allied mission. Fast forward to modern day and the demon has grown to manhood, so to speak, and has become known as Hellboy, a large, fireproof and super-strong warrior who works for the FBI, fighting creatures that have escaped into our world and are intent on wreaking havoc. But his biggest fight lays ahead, as Rasputin, thought destroyed when his attempt to open the gateway was foiled, is brought back from Hell and appears to be intent on wiping out mankind.

One of the key limitations of first-time-out cinematic adaptations of comic books is that, in an effort to be true to their source material, they wrap themselves in an almost inevitable plot and character straight-jacket from the start. The main character, the one whom the film is usually named after, is an essentially good person with problems – a troubled past, an inability to fit in with 'normal' society – an outsider with special abilities that could take him either way but that will ultimately be used for good. To counterbalance this, and to make sure this ambiguity does not cause moral complications for the viewer, there has to be a Bad Guy, and just so there's no mistake he is usually REALLY EVIL. Bad Guys in comic book adaptations don't want to kidnap your daughter, they want to destroy the planet. As a result, no matter how morally questionable the hero's actions, the Bad Guy is always there to remind us that what the hero does is necessary, because this guy is much, much worse, and if you don't let the hero do what he has to do, then the bad guy will destroy everything you love and believe in. Of course, this very attitude is often reflected in American foreign policy, where countries and their leaders are repeatedly demonised to justify invasion, carpet bombing and lucrative reconstruction deals, and the fact that most of these comic books originated in the USA could be seen as a key reason for this restrictive approach to characterisation. It is somewhat ironic that in the world of American (and increasingly, UK) politics, real-life is increasingly being presented in ludicrously comic-book terms.

Thrown into this mix somewhere is a girl with whom the superhero would like to have a normal relationship, but there are usually complications – whether it be down to his secret identity, his unusual appearance, the danger posed by his powers, or just his own communication and self-confidence issues – that prevent him connecting with her, at least until late in the story. Optional extras include a young, greenhorn sidekick and a wise and/or loyal old sage who keeps him supplied with weapons, information or serum. The narrative usually demands that the hero suffers some major loss during the course of the tale so that he may change, move forward, become something different to what he was at the start.

That Hellboy has all of these elements is not necessarily an issue – so do almost all other recent comic book adaptations. What does disappoint is that del Toro plays it completely by the numbers without adding anything substantial that we haven't seen before. Hellboy himself has crossed over from the dark side (visualised as an area of space watched over by a demon trapped in a crystal spaceship), was raised in the US and is now fighting monsters for the FBI. A big-bodied bruiser who talks tough and chews on cigars, he has little in common with the morally upright Superman or even the troubled and vengeful Batman, coming across more as a toned down version of one of those huge, crazed, gun-wielding hyper-patriot soldiers from American war comics who would storm into the jungle and kill a thousand Johnny Foreigners with one machine gun, a half-empty clip and a Bowie knife. This image is emphasised by the opening (Indiana Jones-like) military assault on a WW2 Nazi paranormal experimentation compound, one led by a loud, go-get-'em, tough-talking American Sergeant (from whom Hellboy absorbs this particular trait, del Toro informs us on the commentary). The bad guys play to both this archetype and a continuing xenophobic trend in American action films by being either evil Nazi Germans or crazed, satanic Russians, whose sole mission is to open a portal to hell and lay waste everything decent folk hold dear.

The way is left open for this reading by the absence of a solid subtext, save for the lamely obvious "learn to accept what you are" reading suggested by the film-makers. The teaming of Hellboy with the knowledgeable (we know this – he reads four books at once) amphibian Abe Sapien and the pyrotechnic Liz plays like X-Men Anaemic, but where the X-Men movies made considerable play of the outsider status of their mutants, exploring issues of prejudice and social exclusion from a variety of interesting angles (X2 even had a nicely handled mutant 'coming out' scene), Hellboy throws in a brief flashback and a couple of lines about sticking together and not being able to fit into society, then devotes too much of its sub-story to whether Liz prefers nice, normal-looking FBI guy John Myers or oversized, ugly, oafish Hellboy, who's too shy to just come out and pop the big question. Oh, you big lunk.

This is not helped by the dullness of key player John Myers, who fails to convince as an FBI newbie, coming across more as a fresh-faced graduate of National Lampoon's Delta House, and almost from the moment that we hear that he is replacing trusted, long-term guardian Clay, we know that Clay is doomed, a demise generically necessary if Hellboy is to fully accept the new boy. Similarly marked is John Hurt's frankly uninteresting Professor 'Broom' Bruttenholm, who, like Whistler in Blade (there is a lot borrowed from Blade), is old, invaluable to the super-hero, but already in the grip of a fatal disease, an easy target for Rasputin and whose inevitable death will drive Hellboy towards his final confrontation with the Evil One. It's astonishing that he has lasted as long as he has with such questionable judgment – after they blow up the gate to Hell in the opening scene, Broom begins whispering dire warnings about the length of time the gateway was open and suggesting ominously that something must have got through, but when he encounters the creature his first reaction is to delightedly offer it food and cuddle it like a new-born baby.

Potentially the most interesting of the supporting characters is the amphibian Abe, voiced by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce with the same degree of lofty primness that he lends to Niles Crane in Frasier, but even he has a familiar feel. The transmitted conversation between him and Hellboy on his first encounter with the creature that's been unleashed in the museum, for example, reminded me irresistibly of Giles and Buffy in action, right down to the tone of the helper's delivery and the hero's smart-arse response. Ron Perlman does well enough with Hellboy, but he can only do so much stuffed inside make-up that may be true to the comic but on screen looks like a big red lump of rubber with a foam armpiece, and he's saddled with dialogue that is completely lacking in spark – "You killed my father – your ass is mine!" he yells at the film's most interesting villain (if you can ignore the influence of Boba-Fet from The Empire Strikes Back) before dispatching him, and that's about as witty as he gets. The concept of a demon with a grouchy attitude and a fondness for cigars may seem amusing in itself, but even here Hellboy plays a poor second fiddle to Robert Burke's cynical, world-weary alcoholic monster in Hal Hartley's too little seen No Such Thing.

For many, the spectacle itself will be enough. Certainly the film has its share of slam-bang action, but there is still a so what? quality to much of it. Like so many other recent action movies, a fair amount of the CG appears to be up there simply for the sake of staging it, and CGI monsters with big tentacles and snapping jaws have become terribly familiar in fantasy-based action movies and were poked fun at as long ago as 1997 in Men In Black. Perhaps more surprising is that some of the CG isn't that convincing – it almost always looks exactly what it is, a computer-generated image, making it virtually impossible to give a hoot about anyone being assaulted by it. Mind you, when people do get hit, the wire work ensures that there's no real sense that a character is actually being thrown, just transported mechanically across the room, usually in a completely straight line and unaffected by gravity or any of the objects they smash through.

Hellboy clearly has its fans and will no doubt find an audience, but I and those I first watched it with were left substantially unsatisfied, especially given the pedigree of its director. There's a lack of spark and wit to the writing and especially the dialogue, resulting in plot development and characters that are as two-dimensional as on the printed page, and the execution is too often by the comic-book numbers. The amount borrowed from other cinematic works (Blade, Ghostbusters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alien among them) is particularly surprising and adds to the second-hand feel that runs right through the film. Superficially flashy, it lacks any real substance and, despite a few brief moments of genuine invention, for my money is del Toro's most unexciting work to date. And that includes Mimic.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamophically enhanced, the film looks great – colours, contrast, black levels and shadow detail are all excellent. For those of you wondering if that £10 price tag on the region 3 set over at CD-Wow means you'll be getting a low-grade knock-off, then be aware that this is the very same 2-disk set out on region 1 in the US with the same picture and sound quality. The only real difference is the addition of Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles and menus, plus a Thai language track if you so wish. This also means you have all the copyright warnings in four languages, but that's a small price to pay for the £5 saving on the US disk.

The 5.1 track is pretty much as expected – crystal clear, beefy, with great use of the surround speakers and lower frequencies. The Thai track is also 5.1, but very obviously dubbed – no attempt has been made to make the dialogue sound 'on location', and obviously it does not come close to matching lip movements of the actors. Audio-visual wise, the transfer here is bang on.

extra features

A 2-disk special edition that include enough extras to justify that second DVD, rather than the increasing trend to spread a single-disk's worth of film and extras over two DVDs. There's a lot to go through here.

On the first disk we have two Commentary Tracks. The first features director del Toro and comic book creator Mike Mignola. Del Toro's commentaries are notoriously lively and informative and this is no exception, though compared to those on Blade 2 and (especially) The Devil's Backbone, this is definitely a less involving one. The technical details discussed are interesting, as the the numerous influences – Mario Bava, Jan Svankmajer, Ray Harryhausen, Warner Brothers cartoons – but the track is overloaded with something that has made many commentaries on recent mainstream American films so tiresome to listen to, with the director and creator every couple of minutes saying "I love this [scene, idea, actor, performance, effect, shot, set, moment, position, move, image – take your pick]," a non-stop barrage of adoration for your own creation. It's clear that both men really pulled together on a united vision and are extremely happy with the result, but I only need to be told so many times, and if you're not a fan then this can prove really heavy going.

The second Commentary features cast members Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor, Selma Blair and Rupert Evans. Again of interest, but again heavy with back-slapping, superlative-laden praise for the film and lots of "I love this [fill in blank]," there is a strong sense at times of four friends – occasionally one might even say four luvvies – enjoying a home movie of a great time they had together. It's generally more fun that the first commentary, sometimes for unexpected reasons – Selma Blair asking what they made the slime from and the the other three left stumbling for answers to a question they clearly can't understand why she asked in the first place.

Branching DVD Comics allows you to play the movie and, when a Hellboy comic icon appears on screen, press enter on the remote to be whisked off to a Mike Mignola drawing related to that scene and text written by del Toro. Of minor interest, more so to the comic book fans.

The Right Hand of Doom Set Visits plays the same way as the previous feature, but takes you to short behind-the-scenes videos on specific locations. You can also access these directly from the menu rather than trawl through the film again waiting for the icon to pop up. All are anamorphic 16:9.

The Storyboard Track flashes up storyboards on screen as you play the movie, but they only pop up occasionally and are not as detailed as I'd have hoped.

The majority of special features are on the second disk and are divided into four sections, if you discount the 32 second introduction and the subtitle selection menu.

The first section, given the Alien-esque name of The Egg Chamber, features a range of behind-the-scenes featurettes:

From Graphic Novel to Film (8:57) traces the origins of the comic book to its adaptation and includes interviews with del Toro, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, producers Mike Richardson and Lloyd Levin.

Clay Monsters/Comic-Con '02 (8:26) includes interesting, off-the-cuff DV footage of del Toro in discussion with Mignola and the make-up crew, interviews with mechanical technician Chad Waters, makeup guys Matt Rose and Mike Clizalde. There is also some brief footage from Comic-Con 2002. Strong language is (disappointingly) bleeped out, diluting del Toro's very direct and very funny communication technique.

Creating Conditions and Atmosphere: The Look and Stunts of Hellboy (4:40) includes interviews with production designer Stephen Scott, DP Guillermo Navarro and stunt coordinator Monty Simons, plus some footage of stunt rehearsals and lighting tests on the Hellboy makeup.

Then follows four pages of featurettes (24 in total) focusing on a variety of aspects of the production, arranged as shooting days and whose length range from just over 3 minutes to almost 10. They look at the making of the film from various viewpoints, from casting and the shooting of particular scenes to effects and stuntwork. Their interest level varies, with the sections on wire work (Day 12) and the building of the mecha-glove (Day 35) short on detail and substance, but others, such as those on the digital effects composition (Day 14) and the Hellboy makeup (Day 24) containing footage of considerable interest. All have pretty much the same structure, being a mixture of on-set and/or behind-the-scenes footage cut with interviews and, when appropriate, incomplete film footage. Though individually the sections are a little spotty, as a whole they offer an uneven but sometimes impressively detailed look at the making of the film from a range of different perspectives.

Filmographies & Character Biographies is pretty much as it sounds.

The second section, Kroenen's Lair, features the following:

Scene Progression: Ogdru Jahad, is introduced by del Toro and shows the progression from del Toro's original doodles to full storyboard for one scene. Well, sort of – running at just 44 seconds this is almost a token inclusion.

Animatics also has a del Toro introduction and features the animatics (rough rendered computer animations) of four short sequences from the film. There is the choice to compare each one with the finished film, or view the animatic full screen. Storyboards stand in for the live action parts of each sequence. The lengths range from 30 seconds to 3 minutes.

Board-a-matics again has a del Toro introduction and features the storyboards from five sequences, elements of which have been animated and accompanied by sound effects. They range in length from 45 seconds to 3 minutes. I actually found these quite interesting.

Storyboard Comparisons compare the final storyboards of 4 sequences to the finished film, though you can view the storyboards full screen at any time by pressing the Angle button on your remote. These range in length from 42 seconds to getting on for 4 minutes. I always find this sort of feature interesting, but it is especially so given the film's comic-book origins, as the storyboards themselves look almost like frames from a Hellboy comic.

The third section, Maquette Video Gallery, contains six rotating sculptures of key creatures from the film, with the ability to enlarge parts for finer detail, detail that has been made less clear by giving the whole section a misty look.

The final section, Bellamie Hospital, deals with the film's advertising, and features 9 short TV spots and a selection of proposed and used posters for the film. There are some rather nice images in the poster section, and it's great to see them being reproduced LARGE for a change.

summary

If you like the film then you should be well happy with this disk, which has a spanking transfer, a terrific soundtrack and a bucketload of extras, many of which are informative and entertaining. As for the film itself, well including the commentary tracks I've seen it five times and haven't altered my viewpoint one iota. I so wanted to like it, but I was left almost completely cold. I and those around me seem to be in a minority – comic book geeks everywhere appear to be overjoyed with the result and do not seem bothered at all by the lack of character depth, uninspired dialogue, generically familiar plot development and numerous cinematic borrowings. Genre writer Kim Newman gushed over the film in Sight and Sound, proclaiming it the smartest comic book adaptation of the year, though this very same organ made pretty much the same claim for The Hulk (directed by Taiwanese all-rounder Ang Lee) and Spiderman (directed by indie upstart made good Sam Raimi). Already the Special Extended Edition is on the way, as is the inevitable sequel. Another day, another comic book movie franchise begins...

Hellboy

USA 2004
122 mins
director
Guillermo del Toro
starring
Ron Perlman
John Hurt
Selma Blair
Rupert Evans
Jeffrey Tambor

DVD details
region 3
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
Thai
subtitles
English
Chinese
Korean
Thai
extras
Director/creator commentary
Cast commentary
DVD comics
Set visits
Storyboards
27 behind-the-scenes featurettes
Biographies
Animatics and board-o-matics
Video Gallery
TV spots
Poster artwork
distributor
Columbia Tristar
release date
Out now
review posted
5 September 2004

related reviews
Cronos
The Devil's Backbone
Pan's Labyrinth
The Guillermo del Toro Collection
Hellboy II: The Golden Army

See all of Slarek's reviews