Before the opening credits roll, the movie plunges us into the dizzyingly complex story of Hellboy’s calamitous birth, to which, not surprisingly, the Nazis act as midwives. Allying himself with malevolent gods in a distant galaxy or another dimension or something along those lines, Hitler has contracted a reincarnated Rasputin (Karel Roden) to conjure up a being whose supernatural powers will bring England and America to heel. This grisly seance is interrupted by a cigar-chomping platoon of GIs who take custody of the frightened, scarlet imp thrown up from Hell. The little devil is tamed when one Dr. Broom, the troop’s scientific attaché, feeds him a Baby Ruth bar. The message is clear: All the swastikas in the world can’t match the power of America’s consumer goodies.
Fast forward to the present day. Dr. Broom (John Hurt) now heads up the government’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, where a very grown-up, very brooding Hellboy (Ron Perlman) spends his off-hours in a vault meant to fulfill the fantasies of the adolescent males to whom the movie is mostly addressed. There are a dozen video monitors, weightlifting equipment, cool lighting and an endless supply of chili, pancakes, beer and cigars.
Playing the title role, Perlman looks and sounds like Tom Waits on a serious dose of steroids. He does a fine job of showing us that Hellboy’s gruff, anti-social exterior hides a bundle of insecurities. He’s constantly working on his biceps. He grinds down his satanic horns so he won’t seem such a freak. And he nurtures a thus-far unrequited love for another of Dr. Broom’s minions, Liz (Selma Blair), a lovely, sweetly morose misfit who bursts into flames when provoked. Hellboy also finds himself at loggerheads with his stern but loving surrogate father, Dr. Broom, and with his new minder, John Myers (Rupert Evans), a greenhorn pretty-boy who soon develops a soft spot for Liz himself. Meanwhile, a wise, compassionate merman (played by Doug Jones and voiced by the epitome of sensitivity, David Hyde Pierce) acts as therapist and tries to keep this unconventional family from falling apart.
All this soulful stuff might seem like the setup for a highly unusual Chekhov play, but it doesn’t take long for “Hellboy” to settle down seriously to its real monster-bagging business. Rasputin is back (don’t bother about how), along with his Nazi gal and a truly ghoulish 19th-century cyborg, a sadist with delicate, antique watchworks where his heart ought to be. They have unleashed a voracious, egg-laying monster in New York, which allows Hellboy to strut his stuff in a spectacular, murky sequence in the bowels of the subway system — just the kind of setting most appealing to del Toro’s sensibility. Complications abound, but finally it’s clear that Rasputin and company are trying to lure Hellboy back into their camp; he is the key — literally — to their apocalyptic scheme.
There’s certainly a lot of recycling in “Hellboy,” a bravura mixture of elements from “Alien,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and many more action classics. Del Toro wants to make it all fresh by adding a constant stream of world-weary wisecracking into the mix, mostly from the mouth of our prickly hero. Sometimes he succeeds, but ultimately all the irony makes it tough for us to care very much if this world is saved or goes up in flames. “Hellboy” is a massive, unwieldy contraption, like those old, elaborate flying **1/2 S
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