Hell might be an interesting place upon arrival, but it's bound to get dull after an eon or two.
Likewise, "Hellboy" begins as a refreshingly wry alternative among the flood of gloomy comic-book heroes Hollywood has tossed on the big screen.
Despite Ron Perlman's merry, self-deprecating presence as the title demon, "Hellboy" gradually flames out amid the usual chaos of too-loud explosions and too-numerous computer-animated beasties.
The movie ends up looking like a concoction of everything remotely demonic that has come before it, a hodgepodge of "X-Men," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The X-Files" and "Ghostbusters."
Adapted from Mike Mignola's Dark Horse comics by writer-director Guillermo del Toro, "Hellboy" opens in the closing days of World War II as Hitler's occultist forces, aided by legendary lunatic Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden), uncork a gateway from our world to hell to bring about Armageddon.
An Allied strike force toasts Rasputin and company and closes the portal, but not before a bouncing baby demon with red skin, horns and a tail slips through.
Intended as a harbinger of the world's end, Perlman's Hellboy instead is raised by kindly Professor Broom (John Hurt). With super strength, an arm of stone to batter down walls and invulnerability from fire, Hellboy becomes the mainstay of the U.S. government's Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, pummeling monsters and sending them packing back to hell.
"There are things that go bump in the night," says Professor Broom. "And we are the ones who bump back."
Sixty years after his previous attempt, Rasputin returns from beyond with a plot to bring Hellboy back into the fold and lay waste to Earth.
Perlman has had a prolific career as a modern Lon Chaney playing creatures and disfigured figures, including the ugly half of TV's "Beauty and the Beast." As Hellboy, he has a similar brute-babe relationship with the bureau's resident firebug, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a woman who can set things ablaze when angered.
Hellboy's new FBI ally, John Myers (Rupert Evans), also ends up his rival for Liz's affection.
Rounding out the cast are Jeffrey Tambor as an overbearing FBI honcho and Doug Jones as Hellboy's aquatic mutant sidekick Abe Sapien, both adding healthy doses of humor.
Perlman is his own best comic relief, though, wisecracking through endless battles with hellhounds, chomping cigars, guzzling Red Bull and filing down his horns so he can fit in among polite company.
Born a demon, Hellboy is a poster child for the nature-vs.-nurture debate, an example that even the baddest seed can walk the path of virtue, albeit with some side trips into adolescent hijinks.
Del Toro omits the usual dark-side brooding of the superhero tempted to use his powers for personal gain, instead presenting a crusader whose flaws are simply part of his character and who approaches his job with working-class resignation.
Unfortunately, after setting up this fresh blue-collar scenario in the movie's first hour, Del Toro wallows in pyrotechnics.
"Hellboy," released by Sony's Columbia Pictures, is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and frightening images. Running time: 122 minutes. Two stars out of four.
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