Hellboy: Director's Cut Review
People are either into comics or they're not. For those who are they may well have heard about "Hellboy" and for those who aren't, well that would be understandable. Whether you love comics or not there's just no escaping some. Even if some of us may never have read Spiderman, Superman, X-Men, Fantastic Four and so on the amount of worldwide attention they receive makes them impossible to ignore. Everybody knows who Batman and Superman are regardless and I've read very few comics from selected series.
When Hellboy was announced I had no idea what it was, sure I've enjoyed a couple of the recent batches of comic-book adaptations, namely X-Men but this film was something I wasn't quite ready for. For those in the know Hellboy was an eagerly awaited film and like any other adaptation expectations were high. Perhaps it is the lack of Hellboy's world-wide popularity that meant it made little impact at the box-office after a strong opening. It did well enough to secure a sequel but its success was likely down to audience's thirst for big budget actioners. When it opened the film scored much praise and the reason for this is that at heart Hellboy is a very human film.
Creator, Mike Mignola has done very well over the years, his creation has only been in circulation for ten of those and already it has become a huge franchise, no doubt spurred on quicker by the advance of technology that allows such creations to be carried over to the big screen. The craze for these movies is bigger than ever and over the course of the next few years we can expect bigger and more ambitious films such as Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider and Hellboy 2.
The story kicks off in 1944. Rasputin and his Nazi cult are in the midst of doing something really naughty - summoning the beasts of hell and all that jazz. Their attempt is soon spoiled when a small army unit infiltrates their base and ends proceedings, forcing the gate to close and the bad guys to run away. Heading up the group is Professor Bruttenholm who is now concerned that the gate had been left open for too long and something may have come through it. Indeed it has - he soon discovers a young, red, monkey-like boy with a large hand and promptly the group names him "Hellboy".
The magic of cinema whisks us to 2004 where an older and wiser Buttonhole (John Hurt) runs a government funded organisation under the name of "The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence". Their duty is to carry out various missions and see that the evil in the world is destroyed. Thankfully they have the best of the best working for them - Hellboy (Ron Perlman), aided by Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). Hellboy is often hard work for his "father" as he regularly disobeys orders and chases after Liz (Selma Blair) who frequently leaves the Bureau on account of her instability. The time has now come for Hellboy to get a new partner - enter John Myers (Rupert Evans), a young FBI agent who has been personally selected by Bruttenholm to look after Hellboy and see that he stays out of trouble, of course that is easier said than done. Soon after meeting, Hellboy and Myers are called out to seek and terminate a creature known as Sammael - a being born from darkness, summoned by Rasputin (Karel Roden) who has returned with a clock-work sandman (Ladislav Beran) that happens to be a dab hand with knives...
Hey, that's comics for you. While Hellboy's premise might not signify the most original or engaging story ever told it is a story that has been expertly crafted from the original materials, by a true fan of the comic series. Guillermo del Toro has long been an avid Hellboy reader so who better to helm the big budget adaptation than he?
I saw Hellboy earlier this year when it made its R1 debut and after seeing it I purchased the collections - Seeds of Destruction, Wake the Devil, The Chained Coffin and Others, The Right Hand of Doom and The Conqueror Worm. It was after reading these that I appreciated the film even more and understood why the fans had been going crazy over the silver screen incarnation. To put it simply Hellboy is a fantastic adaptation, one that is faithful in almost every sense with the exception of some changes being made - that of John Myer's introduction (seen as a way to allow the audience to have a recognisable figure) and the extreme fleshing out of Liz Sherman, who has a very minor role in the novels. Naturally by adding something that was never there in the first place, worry would automatically set in and with del Toro placing a love interest that winds up playing out as a triangle he takes a bit of a risk. However he does manage to steer clear from ever allowing it to become too schmaltzy and at the same time he draws a good line between Myers and Hellboy, with each character having enough to play off each other and provide a nice human touch, with Hellboy coming across as much of a human as anyone else in the film. Although he's big and red and files his horns to "fit in" he thinks of himself as a regular guy and when we have him interact with fellow humans we can also see how true this is in essence.
I think the most striking aspect of the feature is seeing Hellboy on screen and realising just how perfect Ron Perlman looks. It is as if he was born to play this part. Even if you look at the comic pages you can see his face and stature and you just know that it is right. Hellboy has many qualities that all good heroes should have but mainly a good sense of humour and Ron delivers his lines with great enthusiasm. Only two actors in comic book movies have impressed me this much - Perlman being one and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine being the other.
As impressive as Hellboy is I have to say in terms of design that Abe Sapien is one of the most beautiful creations I've seen. When comparing him to his comic counterpart he comes through so much more elegantly on screen, his movements are poetry and his demeanour charming. If I had any complaints it would be that he isn't used as much in the film and just disappears for the final act.
The look of the film is typically del Toro; it echoes several of his past films but stays true to Mignola's stylish comic façade. The film is drowned in yellows, greens and blues and carries the tone and feel of the comic books. The scale is often impressive and location wise del Toro has tried to cram in as much as possible, taking us from dark alleyways to snow covered terrain and almost into hell itself. It helps that computers can create just about anything these days and when merged with the various sets the outcome is almost perfect. I say almost because there are obvious CGI niggles but you can't expect any film to look perfect when we're looking at material like this. It is quite easy to overlook a few flaws because in all the film never fails to entertain, the look is impressive, the action is fast and at times innovative and it’s another step up for comic book movies.
As much fun as Hellboy is I do have some reservations. First of all the film is a little too long, which isn't necessarily a bad thing as there's plenty to enjoy but come the final twenty minutes or so it feels a little too forced. Just when you think things have come to an end del Toro pushes it further for its big finale, which in the end actually feels anti-climactic and with several characters pushed into the background at this point it just feels rather tacked on. There were some things I still wanted to be explained, such as the fate of Hellboy's friend, Agent Clay (Corey Johnson) for example - his status is mentioned but unconfirmed. Secondly I didn't think Rasputin was a very interesting figure. I find that his character is the weakest in the film and he is neither menacing nor conniving enough to be a decent bad guy, that honour goes to Karl Ruprect Kroenen - the creepy, bug-eyed self abuser and S&M fetishist who steals a few scenes in his own, quirky way.
There is very little to dislike about Hellboy. In the end it is hugely enjoyable, wonderfully cast and directed with such passion that it is one of the biggest surprises of 2004. For me this has come out of obscurity and won me over as a fan. I can't say that about many superhero films because I can rarely go back and watch them once or twice at the most but I can see myself visiting this title again in the future. For those who have yet to see the film or read the comics I can say that it isn't essential to read them in order to enjoy the film but if you want to appreciate Hellboy's world just a little bit more then there's no harm in checking a few out.
Seeing as this review is primarily for the "Director's Cut" I should address the changes made to this addition. Approximately 13-minutes of unseen footage has been restored to the film, this footage was originally rumoured to contain more violence to give the film a darker edge but this isn't the case. Instead del Toro has put in some slight alterations to scenes containing dialogue that fleshes out some characters a little and improves the flow. In all honesty I can't say that the added scenes make a huge amount of difference, they are quite difficult to even single out from the theatrical cut. Where Lord of the Rings greatly benefited from obvious inclusions Hellboy doesn't. The new footage is nice but doesn't make up any interesting new scenes; it just builds upon them but to a lesser extent. Maybe others will disagree with me but I was personally hoping for more.
Columbia Pictures have done a great job in presenting Hellboy for this new release. This 3-disc set comes in an attractive, card slip-case that houses each disc in their own "thinpak" style case. These make for compact storage which is always great for DVD. As an extra bonus the set includes an exclusive booklet designed by Mike Mignola called "An excerpt from the diary of Grigori Rasputin". This is more of a gimmick than anything else, full of mumble jumble nonsense and pictures of frogs but it’s a nice looking booklet and a strange gift indeed.
Presented Anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Hellboy has a nice looking transfer, let down by some compression artefacts early on that appear during smoke effects. Once it gets going things start to improve - black levels are incredible, something that was important to get across on the film, as well as the wonderful assortment of colours that range from Hellboy and Abe's flesh tones to the various sets and lighting effects. There is a small amount of grain present that rears its head more dominantly on occasion and a small amount of edge enhancement has been applied, though it holds up better than some more recent releases.
A 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track is the only option for this release. I am surprised that a DTS track was not included, though I suspect if it was then we might have seen a worse transfer which of course is just speculation on my behalf.
This 5.1 mix is employed to great effect but to get the most out of it you will need to turn up your speakers more than usual. I felt the surrounds were a little quiet until I tried this and taking up the sub woofer a notch or two helped out also. Dialogue comes through very clear and the front speakers carry a lot of the action well. The rear speakers are naturally saved for other background effects like rain and swooping machinery, not to mention other subtleties. Marco Beltrami's score is given a good pat on the back; while nothing particularly special to me it is still used in this mix to good effect.
There is also a French 5.1 track to pick.
Video Introduction by Guillermo del Toro
A short clip where del Toro welcomes us to the Hellboy extended edition DVD.
All-new Commentary by Guillermo del Toro
Boy, can this guy talk. From start to finish del Toro is relentless in giving us as much information as possible. The man is probably all talked out by now as this commentary along with the exhaustive, extra supplements give us everything we would ever want to know. This is a nice track that's well worth a spin.
Composer Commentary with Isolated Score
This is a little bit of a weird one. Isolated scores usually just run by themselves, for the fans to listen to. Here, Marco Beltrami chats a little bit about his work as the score plays out. There are long pauses and to be honest I'm not generally a fan of these kind of extras. I prefer to listen to a score on CD rather than sit through a two hour film like this. In addition I'm not hugely into the score in the first place. It is ok but by the end there is no theme that is memorable.
Branching DVD Comics drawn by Mike Mignola, with all new expanded Text from del Toro
Here is eight storyboards that have been created exclusively for the DVD release. I was expecting some interesting pages but these are nothing more than introductory pieces, with a flash of text that are soon over and forgotten.
"Right Hand of Doom" - Set Visits and factoids
These can be viewed within the film whenever Hellboy's glove appears in the corner of the screen or they can be seen as one whole piece from the menu. There are eight in total and they offer a good look behind the scenes, including some of the impressive stunt work.
Selecting this option will give you access to storyboards that appear in the bottom right of the screen. They come and go, with long pauses between some scenes but I found that I quickly got bored of these.
Inserting the disc into your PC will give you access to the original screenplay, which you can print out and also a script supervisor's book and Director's Notebook.
For those of you who purchased the 2-disc edition earlier this year, you'll have already seen everything that is presented on disc 2 of this release as it's almost identical, the only omission being that of the short cartoons which weren't particularly good anyway.
Video Introduction by Selma Blair
Selma Blair welcomes us to disc 2 in a bored looking fashion. She doesn't do a good job in selling the DVD bonus material and I suspect that would come from her lack of knowledge about the format. She reads from the cue card but a little more enthusiasm wouldn't have gone amiss.
The Egg Chamber:
Hellboy: The Seeds of Creation
This is a superb two and a half hour piece that goes into much detail about the production from start to finish. It plays out like a diary in places, with shooting days marked out to give us a good insight into the process. The comic books are explored and the transition to big screen, including make up difficulties and getting around certain problematic areas. A lot of the stunt work is explained, with plenty of behind the scenes work as well as the computer generated side of things and how it was blended in with real surroundings to create some believable environments. There are some good interviews all round - this is an exhaustive compendium of facts that is well worth the cost alone.
There are three scenes that run for about 5 minutes in total. Guillermo del Toro could probably have just put these back in the film also as they're just extensions to already existing ones. A commentary by the man for them is also available.
Scene Progression: Ogdru Jahad
This is a very short piece at just 2 minutes in length. Del Toro introduces this storyboard.
This feature includes an introduction by del Toro and is comprised of four animatics: Hellboy and Sammael (West side Street), Hellboy and Sammael (Subway), Hellboy and Abe (Underwater Chamber) and Behemoth.
These are really nice - a mixture of beautiful drawings and rough CGI work. You can opt to view full screen versions of these or as a comparison next to the finished, filmed scenes.
These are selected storyboards for the B.P.R.D. lift sequence, Bellamie Hospital, The Bridge, Hellboy (rooftop) and Supported Beam Tunnel. Once again they are accompanied by an introduction.
There are four storyboards here: Ragnarok, Machen Library, Hellboy and Sammael (Subway Platform) and The Corpse. These are viewed side by side with the selected film clips. By using the angle feature you can switch from this mode to watching the full screen storyboard version.
Maquette Video Gallery:
Here you can view the original Marquette from which the final make-up jobs were based upon. You can select to view baby Hellboy, Abe Sapien, Sammael, Ogdru Jahad, the corpse and Behemoth. They're very beautiful and detailed pieces and it is amazing to see how well the final products seen on film turned out from these designs.
Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots
There is an option to view all of these together or individually. The trailers consist of Trailer #1 and Trailer #2. For the TV spots we get Ancient Evil - Final, Team, Evil’s Back, Kroenen, Bump, Origin, Only Hope - Cutdown, Guillermo - English and Guillermo - Spanish.
These are excellent trailers and spots that really sell the feature well - a lot of fun to watch.
These are accessed both from the main menu or Bellamie Hospital. The trailers are: Seinfeld, Spiderman 2, Spiderman: The new animated series (which looks awful), 13 Going on 30, White Chicks (also looking really bad and creepy), Kingdom Hospital, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blue Orchid, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Kaera and The Forgotten.
Introduction by Ron Perlman
Ron welcomes us to disc three and talks through in brief some of the contents included.
Cast Video Commentary
This commentary track appeared on the 2-disc special edition, sans video footage. Now we get the same track with studio footage of Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor, Selma Blair and Rupert Evans talking us through the film. In the bottom left of the screen a small box plays the movie as we watch the reactions of each member. The track is light and cheerful with each participant fondly remembering the shoot and having a good giggle from time to time; with the more memorable tales being about the time John Hurt farted during his emotional death scene with Ron.
Make-Up and Lighting Tests
This runs for approximately 7-minutes and has del Toro explain the various types of filters that were tested against Hellboy’s make-up. He says how important it was to be able to capture the right tone and show enough of Hellboy’s red skin naturally under varying conditions.
Visual Effects How-To’s
This short feature takes a look at how the special effects and sets were created for the Bellamie Hospital and B.P.R.D. Lift Miniatures as well as Liz’s fire and Behemoth motions. It’s interesting in that it shows off things you don’t see straight away in the film, giving away little secrets that makes the final product appear more successful in terms of effects work - it’s the little things that come across best of all.
Q&A Archive: Comic-Con 2002
This is a 23 minute interview session with del Toro, Ron Perlman and Mike Mignola. Obviously the session takes place during the early stages of pre-production but del Toro is happy to talk the film up a treat. The fan response is good and it is nice to see a man talk so passionately about a project. The director has been honest from start to finish and it is clear that Mignola has the utmost respect for him and Perlman.
A Quick Guide to Understanding Comics
Comic expert, Scott McCloud takes us through a brief explanation of the development of comic books over the years and how they’ve geared themselves toward certain storytelling; the early days being science fiction and superhero fantasy tales and why they are so successful today.
This section consists of conceptual art and production stills, Mike Mignola pre-production art, director’s notebook and comic book artist pin-ups. Mignola’s artwork comes with an optional commentary track and runs for a total of 40-minutes. Del Toro’s notebook is quite interesting, with plenty of bizarre images that didn’t make the final cut. It seems earlier on he was looking at making this a bloodier film than it ended up. The artist pin-ups section features some great artwork that unfortunately you can’t zoom in on.
Trailers for Labyrinth, Mirror Mask, The Dark Crystal and Underworld.
Hellboy is a good film. Despite the wealth of material included I'm not going to give full marks to the extras because I feel there are repetitive moments. For those who love the film then this is an excellent release for an entertaining flick, though it could have benefited from a DTS option. Presumably we’ll see that on a Superbit release down the line…