By the time Hellboy clobbers his first slavering demon, the monster-fighting hero of Guillermo del Toro's film is ready for his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hellboy originally hails from Mike Mignola's eponymous cult comic book, which shrugs off the respectability of the new literary graphic novels to embrace good, old-fashioned monster fighting. By splashing Hellboy on the big screen, del Toro and actor Ron Perlman flesh out the role in all directions. The loose, underwritten plot keeps Hellboy from hitting the genre-flick heights it should, but the gothic imagery astonishes while the freaky protagonist wins our sympathies.
On a dark and stormy night in 1944, occult Nazis and an undead Rasputin (Karel Roden) attempt to open a mystic portal and unleash seven monstrous gods to wreak havoc on the world. (Hellboy never explains how Rasputin hooked up with the Nazis, or gives us a rundown of his magic powers and weaknesses.) The apocalyptic ritual fails thanks to the heroics of some tough G.I.'s and a bookish professor, but something escapes into our world: a bright-red baby with pointy horns and a massive right hand made of stone.
In the present, the now-elderly Professor Broom (John Hurt) has raised Hellboy (Perlman) to adulthood. The world at large believes the big, red brawler to be an urban legend like Bigfoot, the subject of tabloid rumor, "Hellboy sightings" and his own comic books. Hellboy in fact provides the muscle for the super-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, which tracks and dispatches monsters a la Men in Black.
John Myers (Rupert Evans), the bureau's newest recruit, goggles upon meeting Hellboy and the equally bizarre Abe Sapien, a psychic, persnickety fish-man voiced with wry wit by David Hyde Pierce and performed by Doug Jones. Myers joins the team in time to face a demon that resembles a cross between a rhino, an ape and a calamari platter -- and somehow fits in Rasputin's plan to finish the job begun in 1944.
A love of horror film defines del Toro's work, from the atmospheric ghost story The Devil's Backbone to the vampire shoot-'em-up Blade II. For Hellboy's visuals, he crafts a gallery of pulpy fever dreams: Abe, stalked by aquatic marauders, swims through flooded tunnels; a cantankerous corpse guides Hellboy through a snowy cemetery; tentacled monstrosities out of H.P. Lovecraft hatch in outer space. A masked assassin seems to consist partly of clockworks, and in the film's weirdest touch, he pauses to wind himself before attacking with gleaming blades.
But Hellboy's secret weapon turns out to be its sense of humor. As a brightly colored bruiser, Hellboy's comic book forefathers are The Thing from Fantastic Four and Robotman from the more obscure Doom Patrol. You certainly don't expect a slapstick figure on a par with Wile E. Coyote. But in one spectacularly destructive battle, Hellboy falls down an elevator shaft and gets run over by subway train -- each car in succession clanging against his head. And there's something incredibly endearing about a superhero whose catchphrase is "Oh, crap."
The movie nails its protagonist's pathos equally well. Hellboy carries an unrequited torch for Liz Sherman (a wan Selma Blair), a mentally troubled young woman who can't control her fire-starting powers. Perlman's work in the forgotten TV series "Beauty and the Beast" serves him in good stead here. Hellboy may look like a devil and talk like Dirty Harry, but he has the vulnerable esteem of an adolescent. He's nervously self-conscious around Liz, and conveys a comparably warm, incongruous father-son dynamic with Broom.
Comic book adaptations nearly always emphasize spectacle at the cost of the human element, but Hellboy, perversely, provides more character development than it really needs. Del Toro fills the film with clever little moments, such as Hellboy chatting with a young boy over milk and cookies, or bonding over cigars with the bureau's otherwise insufferable head honcho (Jeffrey Tambor). But the scenes become ballast for a plot that slows down when it should speed up.
The bad guys (including Biddy Hodson as an SS vixen) look so completely villainous that we don't really need to know them better, but Hellboy's story would generate more suspense if they had more screen time. As bitter adversaries, Hurt and Roden share a moment of almost chivalrous respect, and a more balanced Hellboy would've included more such scenes.
Del Toro grooves on Hellboy's iconography more than any other quality of the film. The art direction includes swastikas, crucifixes and other religious artifacts, and Hellboy himself proves the most paradoxical icon of all. He carries a rosary in one fist and a gargantuan handgun in the other. His scarlet tail snakes into the frame from time to time, and he sports two circular stumps on his brow, where his devil horns would be if he didn't file them down.
For all his wisecracks, Hellboy embodies humanity's own divided nature, split between love and violence, heaven and hell. That's a lot to place on the hero of an escapist film like Hellboy, but fortunately, he's no 98-pound weakling.