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MOVIE REVIEW

'Hellboy' deserves a hero's welcome

He's 6 feet 5 inches, has skin the inflamed, velvety hue of a baked ham, and is government funded. He likes kittens, pancakes, and cigars, and keeps his horns filed down so as not to alarm the public (they look like miner's goggles atop his forehead, or twin corks keeping his brains in).

He is Hellboy, a demon from the Pit who happens to be on our side and who in Ron Perlman's pitch-perfect performance is the unlikely star of -- surprise -- one of the best big-screen comic-book adaptations of recent years. Like its hero, "Hellboy" is flip, muscular, and at times, touchingly unsure of itself,

and if the movie loses in humor and gains in solemn occult gobbledygook over the long haul, it has more than enough panache to put it up there with the two "X-Men" movies, the first hour of "Spider-Man," and within shouting distance of the original "Matrix." I'm not a reader of the comic, written and drawn with inky bravado since 1992 by Mike Mignola, but I know a fanboy director when I see one and Mexico's Guillermo del Toro ("Mimic," "Blade II," "The Devil's Backbone") is working at a high pitch of geek inspiration here. He opens "Hellboy" in 1944, in a driving rainstorm, as

American GIs and a young British professor stop a Nazi attempt to open the gates of the Underworld. Not quite fast enough: a small red imp with a yen for Baby Ruth candy bars manages to squeak through into our world. Fast forward to today and the grown Hellboy is the FBI's worst-kept secret, a hulking, weary employee of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Says Professor Broom, now wizened with age and played by John Hurt, "There are things that go bump in the night. We are the ones who bump back."

The chief bumper in "Hellboy" is Rasputin (Karel Roden) -- yes, that Rasputin -- who hasn't aged a bit and who arrives in present day New York (don't ask how because the movie doesn't care) to bring about the Apocalypse. This involves unleashing Sammael (Brian Steele), a bestial demon that suggests what the Edwardian horror writer H.P. Lovecraft might come up with if brought back to life and handed a high-end CGI workstation.

Against Rasputin are Hellboy, Professor Broom, and the intellectual fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) -- think Jeff Goldblum playing the Creature from the Black Lagoon. There are also Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Hellboy's sweetheart and a woman depressed by her ability to start fires with her mind, and John Myers (Rupert Evans), a young FBI recruit whose job it is to baby-sit Hellboy while giving teenage girls in the audience someone to look at. As such, he's superfluous.

This is because Perlman is the whole show, until the show starts fighting back. Never a matinee idol, the actor has done his time under prosthetics before -- he has suffered for our entertainment in TV's old "Beauty and the Beast" series, in "Star Trek" movies, and in "The Island of Dr. Moreau" -- but here, at last, he gets to play an expansive, witty lead, and he treats it like payday.

The character has antecedents in The Fantastic Four's Thing and the Hulk, but Perlman and del Toro deliver a fully realized, tremendously enjoyable creation. Yes, Hellboy fights computer-generated nasties with that Aztec urn of a right arm, but he just as often stops to gripe about FBI bureau

cracy, or bring his girlfriend a six-pack, or dither neurotically to a young boy (Rory Copus) on a rooftop while spying on Myers and Liz. He's not even a big fan of his own comic book. "They never get the eyes right," he mutters. "Hellboy" gets it right. Like the comic, the movie has a dank steampunk squalor familiar from "The Matrix," but del Toro is faster and spryer than the Wachowskis, and he has a more graceful eye. Saturating the screen with blacks, whites, and grays -- and one jab of candy-apple red -- "Hellboy" references a whole forgotten world of gothic horror fiction: Lovecraft, "Metropolis," Aubrey Beardsley.

All right, now I'm making it sound like grad school, when it's really just an action movie with a brain, a heart, the nerve. A certain overseriousness does creep into the fights and feints of the last hour, underscored (literally) by Marco Beltrami's overly weepy music. The stakes are raised, and much of the fun drains away. Rasputin's henchman, a masked Nazi killer (Ladislav Beran), is revealed to be a flayed monster so hideous as to make a mockery of the film's MPAA rating. (This gets a PG-13 and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" gets an R? Note to Jack Valenti: Don't let the door hit you on the way out.)

So forget about taking anyone under 12. But if you want to see what a benign demon looks like when he's eating nachos and unwinding to Al Green, this is the movie for you.

***

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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