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(2004) *** Pg-13
121 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt, Karel Roden, Doug Jones.

Writer-director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Blade II) frames his faithful adaptation of the comic book Hellboy with the question "What is it that makes a man?" The unlikely hero of Hellboy is a spawn of Satan who devotes himself to shutting down monsters which threaten humanity. The seven-foot-tall, bright-red, cigar-chomping demon with filed-down horns and a Jay Leno-chin is nevertheless mistaken for Santa by a sanitarium patient, and later Hellboy drops onto a nine-year-old boy's roof and shares milk and cookies with him. So, Del Toro asks, is this giving gargoyle a saving Santa or a slaughterous Satan destined to be humanity's undoing?

The original comic-book auteur of Hellboy, Mike Mignola, gives his stamp of approval to Del Toro's long-aborning labor of love (Mignola also serves as visual consultant and co-executive producer). Hellboy fans are, for the most part, sold. Non-believers will certainly have a harder time penetrating this mysterious and detailed universe; Hellboy suffers from an excess of characters and claustrophobic plotting, perhaps providing too much of a good thing.

In the first of many gonzo special-effects action sequences, the picture opens in 1944 Scotland, where a young Professor Broom helps Allied troops to waylay a Nazi plot to tap the portal of hell for its destructive power. Before the portal shuts--certainly not for good--something emerges: a baby demon with two sprouts for horns and an oversized concrete fist (a gob-smacked general spits, "Look at the size of that whammer!"). Under the watchful eye of the government, Broom adopts the boy, and the unusual single-parent family grows into a small team working for the super-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The splashy visual storytelling demonstrates Mignola's sharp designs and takes good advantage of Del Toro's signature colors (emphasizing rich amber, blue, red, and green).

Ron Perlman--the Lon Chaney of our time--plays Hellboy with grit, humor, and a depth of feeling which, barely, grounds the movie. Professor Broom acquires his son a "nanny," a young F.B.I. agent (Rupert Evans) who Broom describes as being mythically "inexperienced but pure of heart"; the character ends up being little more than a foil, a Marilyn Munster in a house of monsters. Hellboy's sort-of girlfriend, the pyro-kinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), lives off-campus in a sanitarium as she teaches herself to contain her fiery power (which first kicks in with a smoky blue glow). Hellboy's partner and housemate Abe Sapien, an amphibious genius played by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde Pierce, comments, "All us freaks have is each other," reminding us of the kinship Hellboy shares with X-Men. The fatherly, English-accented thespian of Hellboy is John Hurt as Broom. With one of Del Toro's more incisive lines, Broom sums up the premise: "There are things that go bump in the night, Agent Myers, and we are the ones who bump back."

The hellish concept is both freeing and limiting for Del Toro, who is obliged, in this origin story at least, to work his way to an ending which wrests open that hell-portal again in an ultimate test of Hellboy. That's all well and good, and it suits this movie, but vanquishing a beast (usually gargantuan) in a mystical chamber also feels awfully old hat after the identical endings of umpteen other comic-inspired horror movies, from Spawn to Del Toro's own Blade II. The action is crisp, but the film has a tendency to slide along with a surfeit of expositional scenes. Luckily, Del Toro leavens the heavy-footed action with romanticism and irreverent humor, and he crafts just enough rare and memorable moments to carry the day, like the scene in which Hellboy torturously gestures to his face and tells the love of his life, "I wish I could do something about this."

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