When it comes to translating comic-book superheroes to the silver screen, The Hulk could take a few lessons from Hellboy, which manages to stay light on its feet while wrestling with such earth-shattering questions as what it means to be a man. Born in the fiery pits of Hades, Ron Perlman's Hellboy is a veritable demon sent to our planet to usher in Armageddon. And he's got the horns, the tail and the fire-engine-red skin to prove it. But despite his hellacious looks, the little devil "- make that big devil "- just isn't all that demonic. In fact, he works for us -" the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, that is, a top-secret government organization not unlike the one featured in Men in Black. For, who better to destroy monsters from hell than a monster from hell? Raised by one of those professors who never seem to teach any classes (John Hurt in a fright wig), Hellboy is a devil on the side of the angels.
Put another way, he's "a working-class kind of guy who just so happens to also be the beast of the Apocalypse." That's how graphic novelist Mike Mignola, who brought Hellboy into this world, describes him. And what keeps the movie from succumbing to pop-operatic grandeur is its sarcastic sense of humor. "Gonna be sore in the mornin'," Hellboy says after another building collapses on him. The guy's clearly indestructible, yet Perlman endows him with a tender vulnerability rarely seen in superheroes. With his protruding forehead and prognathous jaw, Perlman's always been sort of a sight gag on screen. But he was the romantic lead in TV's "Beauty and the Beast." And here, too, he deftly conveys longing through layers and layers of makeup. What he longs for is Selma Blair's Liz, a despondent young woman whose temper can literally set the world on fire. But how do you win someone over with horns, a tail and a devilish smile?
The horns Hellboy goes after with a belt-sander, filing them down to stumps. The tail, which idly wags, like the Cowardly Lion's, is kind of cute. And the devilish smile? Well, let's just say that Hellboy has a great personality. And so, apparently, does director Guillermo del Toro, who finds just the right tone and never lets it waver. The movie doesn't have much of a villain. And it overindulges in Lovecraftian mumbo-jumbo "- something about the Seven Gods of Chaos and their blah, blah, blah. But it's the most purely enjoyable comic-book movie since Darkman, poised perfectly between comic book and movie. And Hellboy's a superhero I wouldn't mind spending time with. "Sit tight, pal, I'm on it," he says when the bureau's alarm goes off. With a cigar wedged between his lips and a gun the size of a small child, he's the Dirty Dozen all rolled into one. Plus, he loves kittens! For the devil's spawn, he sure is a pussycat.