dir. del Toro

Opens Fri April 2

Various Theaters

After the success of Men In Black and X-Men, Hollywood's modus operandi couldn't have been clearer: cash in on comic books. And cash in it has, but with an unforeseen twist: in its rush for comic properties, Hollywood somehow snatched up Hellboy, possibly the most ill-suited comic for a big screen adaptation.

Writer/artist Mike Mignola's Hellboy--published by Portland's Dark Horse Comics--is dark, intelligent, and character-driven, and just happens to be about a big red monster with a big stone hand who... well, fights other monsters. Admittedly, it sounds shitty on paper: Hellboy--a baby demon clandestinely summoned by the Nazis in WWII--is adopted by the good-hearted Professor Bruttenholm, raised in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, then proceeds to fight Nazis and various monsters.

Ridiculous premise or no, Hellboy has been a mainstay of indie comics for 10 years, infusing that simplistic premise with insightful characterization and emotional resonance. As those are qualities usually ignored in Hollywood's comic adaptations, Hellboy should have failed fantastically. Instead, it succeeds in ways that no other comic adaptation has.

Much of this is because writer/director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Blade II) has fervent faith in the material, a near-perfect cast, and a production design that bears the stylish stamp of Mignola himself. That's not to say it's a flawless transition--cramming the Hellboy mythos into two hours is a tough job, and it shows. Gone are Mignola's lyrical writing and folkloric overtones, replaced with del Toro's kinetic action sequences and sharp visuals. (Del Toro's version feels like Hellboy Lite--just as fun, but only half as filling.)

Del Toro's changes are alternately forgivable and ridiculous, but are perhaps justified by the fact that tonally, Hellboy is onerously original. (Exactly how can one introduce a demon that the audience can take seriously as both a character and an action hero?) Once the film finds its sea legs, however, it settles into a euphoric stride that melds quirky humor and kickass action.

But what makes Hellboy so enjoyable and important is that it revels in pushing its limitations. While Spider-Man hid behind kid-friendly cartoonishness, X-Men toned down its geekiness to net mainstream revenue, and Hulk filled itself with hoary pretentiousness, Hellboy does what they were afraid to do--it admits that it's a comic book movie for grownups. Hellboy then runs with that fact; it's alternately campy and clever, funny and exciting.

The film's easy mutability is largely due to its cast, nearly all of whom seem perfectly comfortable in their admittedly strange characters. Ron Perlman, as Hellboy, exudes a wry everyman charm from beneath layers of prosthetics. Hellboy's amphibious sidekick, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, wittily voiced by David Hyde-Pierce), is an underused presence. John Hurt brings a warm weariness to Professor Bruttenholm, and the relatively normal Agent Meyers (Rupert Evans) is a likable enough guide for the uninitiated viewer. The cast does have two sore spots--Hellboy's pyrokinetic love interest, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) is sadly underdeveloped, and the film's melodramatic villain, Rasputin (yep, the Rasputin), as played by Karel Roden, is as stereotypical of a bad guy as they come.

But del Toro also knows when to cut away from his actors--after all, this is a comic book action movie; rest assured that the punches are hard, the stunts are spectacular, and the set pieces are something approaching visionary. At the end of the day, Hellboy is happy to be an enjoyable piece of escapism, but it's enjoyable escapism with a pretty notable undercurrent. Just as the Hellboy books served as an example of the maturing art of comics, the film could prove capable of doing the same for the burgeoning genre of comic book cinema.