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(2004) (Ron Perlman, Rupert Evans) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A mutant superhero from the dark side battles the occult leader who unleashed him long ago and now wants to use him to complete his supernatural takeover of the world.
It's 1944 and occult leader Grigori Rasputin (KAREL RODEN) and his German assistants Kroenen (LADISLAV BERAN) and Ilsa (BRIDGET HODSON) are trying to bridge a portal into the supernatural world so that the Nazis can win WWII. The Allied forces kill Grigori and stop the effort, but not before a small, devilish creature crosses over.

Adopted by Professor Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm (JOHN HURT) and raised as his son, Hellboy (RON PERLMAN) now lives at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, a covert branch of the FBI. With devilish horns (that he keeps filed down) and tail, and a gargantuan concrete-like fist, Hellboy has a reputation for getting the job done when it comes to taking care of monsters and other such supernatural problems.

He's also known for his solitary and caustic attitude that had led FBI rookie John Myers (RUPERT EVANS) to be named as his new nanny, keeper and best friend. Arriving at the BPR&D, John not only meets Broom and Hellboy, but also Abe Sapien (DOUG JONES), a psychic fish-man, and later Liz Sherman (SELMA BLAIR), a troubled fire starter.

Hellboy is sweet on her and thus grows jealous when she seems to take a liking to John. Yet, he doesn't have much time to dwell on that. It seems that the immortal Ilsa and Kroenen have resurrected Grigori from the dead and now wish to complete their supernatural takeover of the world.

With Head of Special Operations agent Tom Manning (JEFFREY TAMBOR) growingly increasingly perturbed with the mutants and their antics, Hellboy and the others pay him little heed as they set out to find and stop Grigori and the others before it's too late.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
In the annals of time, it's rare that those who finish third, tenth or worse are remembered in their respective endeavors, whether it's scaling Mt. Everest, figuring out how to invent penicillin or running the 100 meter race. That is, unless in the course of doing so they manage to be memorable in some fashion, be it by breaking a record, enhancing an accomplishment or simply drawing attention to themselves.

In the world of comics and movie adaptations of them, there have been so many superheroes battling villains and/or monsters that the creators and/or filmmakers need to do something different in order to stand out and not get lost in the growing crowd.

With "Hellboy," comic artist Mike Mignola managed to do just that. Although his origins aren't completely original, the title character -- with his devilish attributes, huge block of a hand and bitingly sarcastic attitude -- clearly is. Those very attributes are what make his first film intriguing.

And that's a good thing since much of the rest of it feels so recycled from other efforts -- comic book based and other -- that the film has little chance of crossing the finish line first. From its "Raiders of the Lost Ark" type angle to the blatant "X-Men" rip-off and overall "Men in Black" and "Ghostbusters" material, a great deal of the effort feels culled from other sources.

In fact, if not for the title character and Ron Perlman's portrayal of him, the film would be easy to dismiss in a been there, seen that fashion. I don't know how beholden writer/director Guillermo Del Toro ("The Devil's Backbone," "Cronos") has been to the original source material, but you'd think that if he was given any free rein, he could have made the story elements as fun as his hero.

Like any comic book adaptation, the standard setup and introductions precede the main story aspect of the hero battling one or more villains. The problem here is that the latter element isn't particularly interesting or engaging.

Karel Roden ("Bulletproof Monk," "Blade II") plays the occult leader like a subdued version of Arnold Vosloo doing the same in "The Mummy." Meanwhile, his sand-filled henchman -- Ladislav Beran ("Blade II") behind a gas mask or lots of makeup -- is an odd amalgamation of antagonists (an undead and partially mechanical Nazi with martial arts prowess in his mastery of blades). Bridget Hodson ("Bedazzled," "Wilde") fills out the trio as the standard issue blonde Nazi bombshell.

There isn't any explanation about where they've been or what they've been doing between 1944 and the present day, but their return engagement doesn't do much for the film other than mechanically move the plot forward. Nor do the "little" beasties that they unleash on the hero (that kept reminding me of what the demon dog would have looked like in "Ghostbusters" had they had access to such special effects).

Speaking of which and despite the obvious decently sized budget, some of the effects don't look like state of the art or even that good. That's particularly true for those representing Selma Blair ("A Guy Thing," "The Sweetest Thing") and her fiery demeanor. She's one of the X-Men type mutants who's joined by Doug Jones ("Adaptation," "Men in Black II") - with what surely sounded like David Hyde Pierce supplying the voice -- playing the fish-man creature who aides our protagonist.

None of those characters -- or the human ones played by Rupert Evans (making his big screen debut), John Hurt ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Captain Corelli's Mandolin"") or Jeffrey Tambor ("My Boss' Daughter," "Malibu's Most Wanted") -- are as remotely interesting as Hellboy.

Although Perlman ("Star Trek: Nemesis," "Blade II") -- in tons of makeup courtesy of guru Rick Baker -- is just doing a riff on his old "Beauty and the Beast" TV character, he brings an undeniable charisma and heart to the creation. That and the film's moments of humor go a long way in helping one tolerate the bland script and recycled story elements.

In fact, the best moments don't involve the superhero and monster elements at all. Instead, they stem from an unsure big lug who's jealous of his new partner seemingly hitting on his girl. The fact that he's a guy with horns on his head and tale from his backside and she's a fire starter only makes it that much more interesting.

If only the rest of the film exuded that same level of funky spunk. While it's easy enough to watch, perhaps "Hellboy 2" will be consistently better. As it stands, the first installment rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 29, 2004 / Posted April 2, 2004

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