Red, Blue and Sparky

It doesn't matter whether you're a newcomer or a hardcore fan of this very strange series of Dark Horse Comics that first appeared about a decade ago. The result here is a dazzling, wry, well-acted, gorgeously produced popcorn event of a movie, and it stays very true to its source. Everyone is going to be happy.

Since so much is going on as far as plots and side plots and characterizations and plans to take over the world and plans to stop plans for taking over the world, it would be wise to approach the unwieldy Hellboy by being prepared to be a little confused. Even with the supposed central story right at the beginning -- something about the Seven Gods of Chaos waiting up in space and the Scottish-island setting where, in 1944, on a dark and stormy night, Nazis are experimenting with science and black magic, preparing to open a portal that will allow those Seven Gods to destroy the Earth... One must ask, "What the hell is going on? Why would these power-mad Nazis want to bring in creatures to destroy everything? Then there would be nothing left to rule!"

Thank goodness the Allies stop the craziness. But not before something does get through the portal -- something small and bright red and horned and friendly -- and right out of the Ray Harryhausen school of special effects. It's Hellbaby, who (naturally) grows up to be Hellboy, a big lug of a guy who roams around his fancy government-run chamber chomping on a cigar, eating his fill of pancakes and chili, and sharing the space with cats, lots of cats. Sure, it's 60 years later, but this red demon -- his horns have been shaved down "so I can fit in" but his long wagging tail is intact -- hasn't aged much. Professor Broom (a gravelly voiced John Hurt), the man who originally befriended him on that Scottish isle, and who acts as his "father," explains it as aging in "reverse dog years." Hellboy is kind of a strapping teen.

But he's got work to do, along with other denizens of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, including brainy blue gill man Abe Sapien (voice of David Hyde Pierce), who is comfortable living underwater as well as walking the streets, and later, after being released from a special institution, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a sad, beautiful woman who doesn't fit into society because if she's ever ticked off, she bursts into flame. "Red, Blue, and Sparky" is how they refer to themselves. Their work is to rid the planet of any unwanted monsters.

They're assisted by the kindly professor, the eager new FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans), and a battery of easily killed-off others. But they're hindered by a certain trio of villains who were seen during the Nazi experiment and are now back to wreak much more havoc.

The current-day story begins as a hellhound is on the loose, dining on whoever gets in his way. Hellboy, who is treated like a secret weapon but has a legendary, Yeti-like reputation - "Is he real or not?" wonders the public -- is transported around in sealed vehicles to do his stuff, then brought back to his home. He's incredibly strong and has the ability to leap great lengths. His right fist -- made of stone -- sure comes in handy when battling gruesome, drooling, icky, bloodthirsty creatures. But he doesn't have much patience for anything he kills that won't stay dead. And what he doesn't realize is that for every hellhound that falls, two more rise. Uh oh. So soon there are hellhounds and hellhound eggs to spare, and those pesky Nazis are getting closer to unleashing the slithery, tentacled Gods of Chaos that are just waiting for their signal.

Among the wild, extravagant visuals and the bloodless violent mayhem -- production designer Stephen Scott obviously has a thing for huge flames and ruined buildings, and director Guillermo del Toro has a penchant for sprawling fight sequences -- there's also a warped, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and even a side story about romance and schoolboy jealousy. (Hellboy, it seems, has the hots for Sparky.)

Through all the red makeup and prosthetics, Ron Perlman gets deep into the emotional makeup of his character. He's a wiseguy, he's funny, he's serious, he's dangerous -- and he's quite human.

If the film isn't strange enough from frame one, watch out for the showdowns in Moscow. That's when things get really weird.