Guillermo Del Toro’s two Hellboy films are a wildly different pair, both incredible thrill rides and well worth anyone’s time, but I think I will always prefer the first. With the second he took the Pan’s Labyrinth approach, presenting a fairy tale world and showcasing makeup effects that were very similar to that film, an esoteric and elemental vibe. There’s just something about the Lovecraftian, steam punk WWII aesthetic of the first that works better for me, and seems to fit our red pigmented protagonist a little more. These films would be nothing without the essential and hard won casting of Ron Perlman, though. He brings a lively vitality, hulking physicality (he fits the part even before the prosthetics go on) and loveable sarcasm, and when you see him in action there is really no other actor you could envision bringing this character to life. It’s laughable to think that Del Toro fought the studio for years to get Ron in the role, turning down the likes of Vin Diesel and Nic Cage (what in the actual fuck were they thinking), not compromising for a second, knowing the film he wanted to make. Well, Ron got cast in the end, as we now know, and he’s not so much playing Hellboy, he just is Hellboy, he’s that perfect for the role. When he’s backed up by Del Toro’s near godlike creativity and imagination (the two partner on projects frequently and it’s genius every time), you get a piece of comic book escapism as exciting and adventurous as this. Hellboy was the result of a nazi experiment gone wrong, in which certifiable nut job Grigori Rasputin (freaky deaky Karel Roden) and his minions open a portal to a dark universe, in attempt to summon forth anything that could turn the tides of war (not the brightest idea, if you ask me), and instead out crawls infant Hellboy, a cranky crimson imp with a big stone appendage and an attitude to match. Kindly professor Trevor Broom (John Hurt) raises the creature to be a force of good and protection for our world, and soon enough he grows into eight foot tall, wise ass, cigar chomping, ass kicking Ron Perlman, now a valuable and formidable asset to the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, an order who strives to keep the darkness at bay. Joined by his on and off flame Liz Sherman (pun intended, as she’s literally a firestarter), Professor Broom, rookie agent Meyers (Rupert Evans) and humanoid swamp thing Abraham Sapien (Doug Jones, dubbed out with David Hyde Pierce), he sets out to shield New York, the planet and the universe from Rasputin, who has returned with notions of finishing the cataclysmic work he started decades ago. The action is propulsive and rousing, initially in NYC streets and subway tunnels, and then in a far off arctic locale where a gateway to some dark dimension opens once more and a suspiciously Cthlhu esque deity of destruction peers out. Del Toro has stated before that he prefers to think of his work as ‘eye protein’ rather than eye candy. Well, call it what you will, his films are nothing short of dazzling on all levels, and Hellboy is no exception. There’s visual splendour in every frame, from the painstaking costumes, makeup and props (Perlman has a great big gun for that great big hand), to the production design and seamless computer wizardry, the world we see onscreen is immersive and entertaining for the entire journey. Roden makes a frothing madman out of Rasputin, always nailing the villain when he shows up, and stopping said show here with his theatrical and baroque insanity. My favourite has to be Kroenen though, a sharply dressed, mute nazi assassin with a face only a mother could love and a set of knives you’d be foolish to get in the way of. He’s an inspired and truly creepy villain that sets the apocalyptic dial on the highest setting when he shows up. Jeffrey Tambor provides additional comic relief as the long suffering suit who serves as the face of PR for the bureau, and props to Brian Steele as Sammael, a seriously pissed off demon set loose by Rasputin in the city streets, leading to one blockbuster of an action sequence. As far as comic book films go, this is a gold standard of filmmaking, world building and good old fashioned storytelling, all of which Del Toro is a master at. It wouldn’t have been the same without him, without Perlman and especially without the magic that happens when they work together.