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What makes a man a man?

It's a hard question to answer, perhaps, when the man in question is almost seven feet tall, lobster red and possessed of both a massive stone hand and a flickering prehensile tail. Yet writer/director Guillermo Del Toro poses that central question in Hellboy, his decent film adaptation of comic book artist Mike Mignola's masterwork. The query provides surprising heart to both the film and star Ron Perlman's performance, an emotional underpinning that keeps us interested even through the sometimes wearing action scenes.

Not that the action isn't fun. Del Toro starts things off just as Mignola did, on an island off of Scotland teeming with Nazis and the potential for ancient evil. Standing against them are a group of regular joes, American G.I.s ready for action but unprepared for what they discover. Hitler's top assassin, the Dr. Doom-like Karl Kroenen, watches implacably as Rasputin (Karel Roden) prepares to open a doorway to …someplace else.

Even then Del Toro strikes the balance of the film's tones, as a floodlight gets sucked into this eerily quiet other dimension of elder gods. So quiet, in fact, that you can hear an eye blink before the action starts again in the "real" world. The director weaves back and forth between high action and quiet reflection. For the most part, it works, but it never achieves the sense of dread that one would associate with evil tentacled monsters preparing to invade the Earth.

But why should it? We all know that Hellboy and his parent organization, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, will stand against this invasion. Like Mignola's comic book, Del Toro wants to have fun with the concept, setting up FBI agent Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) as a public face with the job of denying that the BPRD exists at all. Of course, right after denying its existence, we cut to a subtitle identifying the New Jersey location of the BPRD.

Despite the story being caught up in dark and gloomy proceedings (this is, after all, about staving off the end of the world as we know it), the only stereotypical nod goes to the stuffy British academic Professor Broom (John Hurt), head of the Bureau. Though the character comes straight from Hammer Studios, Hurt plays it with a twinkle, clearly relishing the chance to say such things as, "…there are things that go bump in the night. We bump back."

And back and back and back. Though Del Toro and his crew have done an incredible job of bringing Mignola's work to life, the fighting does grow tedious. In any conflict, it becomes a given that Hellboy will go flying backward through the air, preferably crashing through as many objects as possible. When it happens as he is actually being pulled backward and breaking every lamp in a corridor, you know the action has fallen into a rut.

However, there are still some tremendous sequences. A chase through a Halloween Street Fair and into the subway pauses for breath occasionally, but still never lets up. The film also brings its little bit of Ctulhu mythos to cinematic life more effectively than such films as John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness. (There's a lot of squirmy stuff.)

And the quiet touches really make it roll. Even though Hellboy is over sixty, he still hides from his "father," Professor Broom, that he smokes.

All the actors fill their roles with aplomb. Those villains without armor or tentacles never quite cross over into ham; Roden actually plays Rasputin with more sensuality than you might expect, though with his modern sunglasses on he bears a disturbing resemblance to Joe Pantoliano in The Matrix. Though Tambor has a lot of his usual insincerity, he shows a flair for command; though his character, Manning, is often at odds with Hellboy, it's out of a believable discomfort, not just for comic relief. Sharing the role of the aquatic Abe Sapien with voice David Hyde Pierce, Doug Jones brings a sleek physicality, human and yet clearly not.

In the role of extremely dangerous love interest, Selma Blair may finally have the mainstream credit to get higher recognition. As pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, she plays her conflicted emotions subtly. Blair's face often has a slightly tired look to it; it's a quality that serves her well here.

Ironically, Perlman makes Hellboy's face his own. Part of that should be a tribute to amazing design from the great Rick Baker, but Perlman so brings it to life that seeing him without make-up will be a shock. The script informs us via one of his handlers that he ages in sort of "reverse dog years," so he's physically in his late twenties. But emotionally, he is even younger, modeling himself after a hard-boiled detective, and the older Perlman keeps it believable. He gives the demon child a hint of a Jersey accent, and the incessant one-liners he offers up are clearly the result of his belief in how he should behave as a "lone hero."

And yet there's pain beneath the red make-up, and that comes through, too. For just a moment, Perlman could break your heart as Hellboy tries to express how he feels about Liz before cracking wise.

Like Mignola's book, the movie leaves a lot for you to simply accept. Del Toro, in fact, actually goes a little further toward explaining Hellboy's purpose than Mignola did. But all that really matters is that when evil rears its head, there's a devil with a big gun ready to shoot it off. Though this first cinematic adventure probably could have been a little shorter and tighter, it's still enough to make us want to see the Big Red Hellcheese again.


Derek McCaw

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