Like most such sagas (including "X-Men"), "Hellboy" uses World War II as ground zero for 20th-century evil. It is there that the film's 13-minute prologue begins, with American troops and a paranormal expert named Trevor Broom raiding a rainy Scottish isle where the occultist Russian monk Rasputin (Karel Roden) is leading a Nazi team to open a portal to Hell. Not that Rasputin (who should have died decades earlier) is particularly interested in such an earthly evil as Nazism--he wants outright Armageddon, and the unsuspecting goose-steppers are merely providing him the means. Fortunately, the Yanks spoil the party, but not before a little red creature with a giant stone hand is able to slip through from the netherworld. Rather than kill the creature, however, Broom chooses to adopt the rosy waif, raising him through the decades to become a kind of mythical crime fighter known only as Hellboy.
Flashing forward to the present, Broom (John Hurt) is now an old man, the guiding force behind a top secret, government-funded team of paranormal superheroes that includes an amphibian intellectual named Abe (body by Doug Jones, voice by David Hyde Pierce) and the now-grown and heavily-muscled Hellboy (Ron Perlman) who, when he's not thumping baddies, pumps iron, chomps cigars and spits out tough, quippy one-liners. But there's a soft spot to Hellboy, as Broom's intended heir, John Myers (Rupert Evans), discovers. For years, Hellboy has had a crush on their emotionally troubled third teammate--the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair)--now self-institutionalized for fear that, if left in the outside world, she'll keep making things spontaneously explode. And when she's around, Hellboy is just a regular boy.
Alas, for the time being, such mushy matters will have take a backseat to the more pressing issue of Rasputin's return. Only this time he's brought along an ugly pack of giant hellhounds that have an unfortunate habit of multiplying whenever they're killed. Though there's nothing particularly new in the "Hellboy" narrative (similarities to del Toro's last film, "Blade II," are glaring), it's easy to be captivated by del Toro's style and the film's overall panache. The unexpected casting of Perlman, a mid-level star who previously teamed with del Toro in his breakthrough 1993 Mexican film "Cronos," is actually quite inspired and not simply because of Perlman's renowned ability to act through many layers of makeup. Capturing both the personality and the physicality of a larger-than-life comics hero, he immediately makes one wonder what "The Hulk" might have achieved had its makers gone the same route.
But "Hellboy" is not without its own problems. While there can be no disputing del Toro's proficiency with effects and the film's seamless blend of CGI, animatronic and makeup effects, his penchant for the grotesque is frequently off-putting, pushing the PG-13 rating to its very limits. Even more problematic is the climax, which pits the hero against yet another gargantuan CGI monster with tentacles. This isn't merely the same ending as both previous "Men in Black" films. It's the same ending as nearly every other film of this sort over the past 20 years. That's not to say it's the wrong ending, but given the story's impossibly high stakes, it's clearly not a satisfying ending. Starring Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden and Rupert Evans. Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro. Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin and Mike Richardson. A Columbia release. Fantasy/Action. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and frightening images. Running time: 121 min