There are a lot of comic-book movies. The idea of a body of previously conceived characters, a built-in following, and a source material that functions as both a storyboard and piece of tie-in merchandise, is like a movie pitch on a platter. Or, at the very least, is quite likely to supply a snappy-sounding title. In the case of Hellboy, the latest offering from Blade II director Guillermo del Toro, the movie version of Mike Mignola's comic is a most interesting derivation which unfortunately may better serve comics than movies.
Hellboy himself traces a less-than-direct route to his job as defender of good. He was conjured from Hell by the Nazis. Ripped from his fiery home in an arcane ritual involving an evil Russian spirit medium, Hellboy is brought to Earth. He is nabbed from the Nazis by the Allies under the direction of the leader of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a Professor Broom, who is aided less by the soldiers in his company than by a strategically deployed Baby Ruth candy bar. The young devil is embraced by the soldiers and, in turn, raised by the professor as his son. The soldiers nicknamed the infant Hellboy.
The main plot of the movie is a 50-year flash-forward from that moment, as a plot hatched by the maniacal Russian Rasputin (Karel Rodin) is uncovered. Fortunately, the grown-up, near-indestructible Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has been trained as a superhero under the watchful eye of Broom (John Hurt). Father and son are joined by two other urchins taken in by the good professor: a genius fish-man, voiced by Frasier's David Hyde Pierce, and a striking and aloof pyrokinetic (think Firestarter), played by Selma Blair. That's brawn, brains and beauty -- and we even have our crazy Russian nemesis picked out.
When Hellboy entertains, it sticks to that trusty comic-book formula. Hellboy himself is as irreverent and reluctant a hero as any. His cigar jauntily perched on his lip, pacing his lair with a favorite kitten in his arms, or taking time out over milk and cookies to commiserate with a young fan about the unknowable nature of women. It's all a bit of a chore for Hellboy. There are no Superman monologues about responsibility or truth.
Where Hellboy fails, sadly, is as a movie. The soundtrack is melodramatic, the costuming distracting. Perlman turns in a solid performance, but Blair is, as ever, a sort of sallow, wilted avatar of whatever passes for being promising in Liv Tyler. Hurt is very, very English about the whole matter, and the others bear no mention. Fans of Mignola's or of comics in general will be entertained. People who believe that Rogue became an X-Man as a teen-ager will complain. Trust me.