Like superheroes from Spider-Man down to the Blue Beetle, Hellboy looks like he could have no other name. What else could you call a being with bright-red fireproof skin and a pointy tail? Only the horns are missing, and that's because—according to one character in Hellboy, the new adaptation of Mike Mignola's comic book—he files them off "to fit in." Found 60 years ago by soldiers breaking up a mystic Nazi ritual, Hellboy now works alongside other well-intentioned freaks in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. He's a demon from another dimension, but he's all-American at heart.
Hellboy is a great character, and he's brought to life with gruff tenderness by Ron Perlman, the go-to actor for finding the humanity in oversized creatures: The list of actors who could make high drama out of fighting a monster with one hand while holding a crate full of kittens in the other remains pretty short. But the film around Perlman never quite finds its footing. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro recently created a mood of sustained, meaningful dread in The Devil's Backbone and turned Blade II into an exercise in unrelenting action. He's versatile, but he can't seem to make up his mind about what kind of film he wants to make. Hellboy uneasily mixes Men In Black-style gags with straight-faced drama, which mostly revolves around Selma Blair as a woman with an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames.
Hellboy feels more at ease when it errs on the side of comedy, throwing in gags about Perlman's love of pancakes and cats, letting him fill the floor with discarded love notes to Blair, and giving him a grumpy talking skeleton as a sidekick. It looks great, too—it loses Mignola's woodcut-inspired art, of course, but stays true to the world of the comic.
Too bad the story and, more surprisingly, the action never come alive. The villains, even a reincarnated Rasputin, don't pack much menace, and the fight scenes mistake busy for thrilling. With its oddly charming setup and weirdly appealing characters, Hellboy is pretty much impossible not to like a little, but it's also hard to like a lot. There's a fantastic film to be made from this material, but now, the burden of making it falls to a sequel.