Released from the underworld in 1944 by evil Russian puppet master Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) and a crew of Nazis as part of Hitler's plan to use occult powers to turn the tide of World War II Hellboy is rescued and raised by kindly Professor Broom (John Hurt). Years later in present-day Manhattan the big red demon (Ron Perlman who at this point must have spent more of his life in a makeup chair than out of one) smokes cigars tosses off wisecracks and fights otherworldly baddies for the secretive Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He's joined by the water-dwelling Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones voiced by David Hyde Pierce) and fresh-faced FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) the professor's designated Hellboy handler-in-training. When Rasputin resurfaces and unleashes a horde of evil spirits on the city in an attempt to finish what he started back in the '40s Hellboy and Co. (including fetching pyro Liz Sherman played by Selma Blair) must face the dark magician in a no-holds-barred supernatural showdown that (naturally) will determine the fate of the world.
All the digital enhancements and red makeup in the world couldn't make Hellboy a sympathetic character if the actor underneath wasn't appealing. Luckily Perlman fills the bill. Whether he's indulging Hellboy's adolescent jealousy of the burgeoning friendship between Myers and Liz (the angsty brunette is Big Red's lifelong object of affection) or letting a pair of endangered kittens tug at his heartstrings Perlman creates a character who is ironically very human in his contradictions. And his knack for tossing off zippy one-liners doesn't hurt either. Evans one of those Everyman-faced actors whom you're just sure you've seen somewhere before (but since his biggest U.S. credit to date is well nothing you probably haven't) is perfect as Myers--one of those Everyman-faced comic book fellas whose job is to be as earnest as possible. Meanwhile Blair never quite makes Liz as enchanting as she should be to earn the adoration of both Hellboy and Myers; she shoots off a lot of soulful-eyed looks but that depth isn't reflected in the rest of her performance. As for the villains only Roden's evilly charismatic Rasputin can really be considered a character (creepy Nazi leader Kroenen never speaks and Biddy Hodson's scheming Ilsa has just a handful of lines) albeit an underdeveloped one.
Del Toro fans have come to expect slick moody action from the man behind Mimic and Blade II and they won't be disappointed with Hellboy. From gloomy dripping subway tunnels to stark Russian graveyards Del Toro has created a more convincing comic book world than almost anyone else who's brought a graphic novel to the big screen in recent years (Spider-Man's Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer's X-Men flicks are notable exceptions). The lines colors and composition of his shots seem like they could be lifted right from Mike Mignola's pages and Marco Beltrami's eerie/ominous score makes Hellboy's world feel all that much more dangerous. The effects aren't half-bad either. Someone on Rick Baker's creature team seems to have a grudge against squid (every one of the demonic beasties Hellboy battles is positively bristling with tentacles) but the fights are fast furious and fun. Del Toro who also wrote the script does let the film stray perilously close to Daredevil-like cheesiness in a few spots ("All us freaks have is each other!" Abe declares at one point) and the climactic confrontation stretches out a little too long but overall Hellboy is a well-paced bit of adrenaline that's guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser.