Yet another movie made from a dark comic book (sorry, “graphic novel”) hardly seems likely to afford much pleasure, but Guillermo Del Toro shows how it should be done; Mike Mignola’s Dark House series is reportedly one of the director’s favorites, and his adaptation proves the rare labor of love that should both satisfy die-hard fans and excite newcomers as well. “Hellboy” is about a horned, red-faced son of Satan (Ron Perlman, looking as though he’s wearing garb left over from Tim Curry’s demonic turn in Ridley Scott’s “Legend,” though this demon grinds down his antler-like horns to mere nubs in an effort to “fit in”) who’s gone good and fights Evil under the tutelage of a grizzled, professorial type (John Hurt), the head of a secret FBI appendage called the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Just think of “X-Men” with a different sort of mutant or “Angel” with an ugly anti-hero instead of a pretty one and you’ll have some idea of the template that’s being followed here.
But “Hellboy” is hardly a simple copy of anything, and Del Toro’s filmization of it is happily different from the run-of-the-mill comic movies that have proliferated of late. It’s hardly a serious piece; rather, like the best comics, it combines amusing absurdities with a world just real enough to be recognizable, and adds to the mix plenty of good jokes in the dialogue and situations to brighten the dark ambience. Thus we find a plethora of disparate elements that include not only a scarlet demon but a repeatedly resurrected Rasputin, a clique of Nazi officers involved in the occult, a near-immortal faceless Gestapo ghoul equipped with long knives that are wielded in kung-fu style, a good-natured version of the gill man from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” some squishy lion-like monsters spawned from a bottle of salt long concealed in a statue of Dionysius the Areopagite (!), a doorway to hell, and what appears to be a giant, drooling land squid sent from Hades to begin the apocalypse. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s a romantic triangle involving Hellboy, a young FBI agent named Myers (the likable Rupert Evans), and a pyrokinetic young woman (Selma Blair), in which Hellboy’s jealousy is played (quite successfully) for comic relief; a typically officious FBI head (Jeffrey Tambor, who makes the fellow’s preening self-importance amusing); and even a skeletal Russian corpse that’s disinterred by Hellboy to provide information on the location of a mausoleum in a Moscow cemetery–a character that, contrary to all expectations, is very funny in a haunted horse sort of way. And, as topping to it all, there are plenty of big, elaborately staged fight scenes, done up in true comic-book fashion, with pulverizing blows, collapsing walls and long, humorously extended reactions from the unfortunate recipients of the punches.
With all of this going on, it’s nearly impossible to summarize the narrative (or, perhaps, even to understand it all, unless you’ve an aficionado of the books). After a 1944 prologue in which the young Professor Broom (played by Kevin Trainor at this stage), President Roosevelt’s paranormal advisor, foils an effort by Rasputin and the Nazis to open a portal to hell, he discovers that the impish hellboy has passed into the world in the process. Broom adopts the demon tyke and raises him to become the chief agent of the FBI’s B.P.R.D., a Sasquatch-like figure sent out to deal with unexplained phenomena using both his fists (his oversized right hand looks like a big red mallet) and huge guns when necessary, always quipping along the way (and occasionally glimpsed by civilians, to the delight of supermarket tabloids). He’s accompanied by gill-man Abe Sapien (acted in heavy makeup by Doug Jones, but voiced with impeccable comic timing by David Hyde Pierce) whenever necessary, and pines away for Liz Sherman (Blair), who’s locked herself up in a mental hospital to deal with her unwanted powers. At the very moment when Broom has discovered he’s terminally ill and chosen Myers as his replacement, a dangerous challenge emerges, in the form of monsters unleashed by the revived Rasputin to serve as bait to lure Hellboy, after a whole series of encounters and fights, to an underground Russian cavern where the Mad Monk needs him to unlock the door that will unleash the destruction of the earth.
The cast plays this material with precisely the right blend of tongue-in-cheek seriousness. Perlman, who’s always looked good in heavy monster makeup, is hilariously hard-boiled as Hellboy, and he pulls off some charming change-of-pace scenes (watch the one where he spies on Liz and Myers from a rooftop, in the company of an advice-giving young boy). Hurt uses his Shakespearean tones to excellent effect as the eccentric Broom, Evans is surprisingly pleasant as the fumbling young hero, and Blair brings both strength and vulnerability to Liz. And while Roden is pretty much standard-issue villainy, the Jones/Hyde Pierce combo makes Abe a touching and funny creature, and Tambor seethes with stupidity as the self-important FBI head (he also enjoys a nice final scene with Hellboy, in which they come warily to respect one another).
But the real heroes of “Hellboy” are the strip’s creator, Mignola, who’s served as a visual consultant and helped to insure the picture’s faithful recreation of the comic’s world, and Del Toro, who captures the zest, adolescent spirit and sheer panache of the original. The movie doesn’t have the profundity of the director’s smaller efforts (“Cronos” or “The Devil’s Backbone”), and in the final reel it does tend to go on a bit too long. But it’s better that his “Blade II,” and especially in comparison to the many failed adaptations of comics (just think “Daredevil”), it’s a triumph, and lots of fun besides.