2 stars (out of 4)
Ron Perlman is no one's idea of a superhero, which is what makes "Hellboy" interesting. The hulking, chiseled, 53-year old actor is most famous for starring in TV's long-gone "Beauty and the Beast" series, but he's wearing a different kind of makeup in this would-be franchise based on Mike Mignola's popular, dry-witted Dark Horse Comics books.
Hellboy is a big red dude with an oversized right hand of stone and two disks sticking out of his forehead like embedded goggles, though they're actually the stumps of the horns that he sawed off. (He wants to fit in, you see.)
He chews on cigars like a racetrack sharpie and operates under the assumption that the quickest way between two points is a straight line, regardless of whether a wall or ceiling is in the way. He's also a softie, pining for a young woman with a fragile temperament, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who, when riled, has an unfortunate habit of setting herself and everything around her aflame.
And he lives in fear of disappointing his "father," the British scientist Dr. Broom (John Hurt), who raised him after discovering him as a devil look-alike baby in the aftermath of a Nazi experiment gone haywire. Now Hellboy lives at his dad's secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense along with clairvoyant "mer-man" Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and a bunch of kitties. When troublemakers come a-knockin', Hellboy and his cohorts (minus the kitties) get a-rockin'.
Hellboy thus is different enough from the ever-growing crowd of comic-book movie heroes to deserve his own showcase. But "Hellboy" isn't different enough from all of those comic-book movies to make the effort worthwhile.
Here we have a talented visual director, Guillermo del Toro ("Blade 2"), taking care to re-create the stark, shadowy look of Mignola's comics. We have makeup artist extraordinaire Rick Baker and Perlman giving the movie Hellboy an uncanny resemblance to the on-paper one, with his unnaturally bright, textured skin lending a heightened sense of the unreal.
We have the gifted Hurt grounding the movie and Jeffrey Tambor as a government official who turns out to be more droll than obnoxious.
We also get a lot of computer-generated beasties fighting one another - and almost nothing resembling suspense. That's because our nonconformist hero is stuck in a movie that conforms to too many Hollywood conventions.
The villain, who might as well be a "Mummy" discard, is the bald Rasputin (Karel Roden), who keeps returning from the dead to try to harness some mystical powers. Also overly familiar: the paranormal-chasing Nazis, New York subway chases, heavy-handed Christ symbolism and those slimy, multi-tentacled monsters.
The love subplot, devised for the movie by del Toro, never sparks, and the suggestion of a triangle among Liz, Hellboy and his new bland sidekick John (Rupert Evans) goes nowhere.
Never explained is how the public could remain in the dark about Hellboy's existence when he spends so much time battling monsters in public spaces.
The movie feels at odds with itself, embracing the comics' idiosyncratic creations without an idiosyncratic worldview. Wisecracks don't equate wit - the movie needs to be funnier or scarier or something.
You enjoy Hellboy and Abe Sapien without ever feeling much about anything, no matter how tragic or exhilarating. Hellboy's adventures may take him to you-know-where and back, but the movie remains in limbo.
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro; based on the comic books by Mike Mignola; photographed by Guillermo Navarro; edited by Peter Amundson; production designed by Stephen Scott; music by Marco Beltrami; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson, Lloyd Levin. A Sony Pictures release; opens Friday, April 2. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, frightening images).
Hellboy - Ron Perlman
Trevor "Broom" Buttenholm - John Hurt
Liz Sherman - Selma Blair
Tom Manning - Jeffrey Tambor
Grigori Rasputin - Karel Roden
John Myers - Rupert Evans