You can never have too many tentacles in a movie, or too many Nazis. The comic-book adaptation Hellboy (which opens Friday, April 2, at the Metro and other theaters) delivers on both counts. It borrows heavily from the Indiana Jones trilogy, which yields both the Nazis and a welcome B-movie sense of humor. Hellboy is also full of squidy adversaries (recalling Indy's famous fear of snakes), as our benignly demonic "red ape" of a hero (one-third CGI, one-third prosthetics, one-third Ron Perlman) is forever chopping off tentacles and tongues and extra sprouting limbs.
With a background in gothic Mexican horror movies, director Guillermo del Toro (Chronos, The Devil's Backbone) knows that tentacles have got to be fun to chop off (unlike, say, the sentinels of The Matrix Revolutions: As for those Medusa-like robots, I've untangled tougher extension cords). When Hellboy periodically amputates such appendages of evil, they flop around on the floor like eels. They ooze satisfyingly.
Granted, like its hero, the movie isn't terribly bright. It's made of the same comic-book DNA as X-Men, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Men in Black: mutants, knife fights, wire work, romantic triangles, extensive use of underground locations, "the seven gods of chaos," world domination, Armageddon, etc. Crucially, however, Hellboy is free of the portentousness that weighs down those films (not to mention the Matrix movies). It spares us the entire Wachowski-style syllabus in favor of a simpler Catholic catechism regarding our potential for good and evil: "You have a choice." (Here, a rosary is more powerful than any red pill.)
Hellboy's Origins are sketched in a 1944 prologue in which Nazis, the occult, and Rasputin (still not dead!) conspire to create the WMD of their day—namely, some kind of portal into hell from which baby Hellboy accidentally tumbles like a cute lil' incubus that young Dr. Broom tames with candy bars. (Parenting is the same during peacetime and war.) Jump forward 60 years, and Dr. Broom (now played by John Hurt) heads the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense— located, where else, but in Newark, N.J. Broom's dying but doesn't tell his surrogate son, now grown large like a crimson parade float. (Forget steroids; Hellboy embraces an entirely anti-Atkins diet, sighing like Homer Simpson, "Mmmm, Nachos!")
A few more supporting characters are introduced: There's lost love Liz (Selma Blair), a pyro-kinetic presently housed in a nuthouse, for whom fireproof Hellboy is still pining; rookie FBI agent Myers (Rupert Evans), whom Dr. Broom recruits to serve as Hellboy's "nanny, his keeper, his best friend"; a telepathic fish-man who behaves like Felix to Hellboy's Oscar. But that's all window dressing: It's time to go fight reincarnated Rasputin, his mummified Nazi assassin (who bleeds sand), and some unkillable hellhound creatures with Rastafarian hair and faces like beetles! Pedestrians scatter; subway trains and stations get wrecked; and del Toro winkingly halts the action to gratuitously interject a box full of kittens (one of Hellboy's soft spots).
Scotland, Moldavia, New York, Russia— Hellboy is quite literally all over the map, though never far above ground. You can always find a hidden, booby-trapped catacomb beneath the IRT or a convenient graveyard. Even lower down, there are precarious causeways across yawning chasms; Rube Goldberg and Edgar Allen Poe were evidently buried in the same grave. When guidance is needed, there's even a talking reanimated Russian corpse—well, half-corpse—that would do Sam Raimi proud; it's like the remains of Charlie McCarthy after the termites got their teeth into him.
After so much overreaching among the post-Batman comic-book crop, it's a relief to enjoy a film that doesn't treat its source like scripture. Although his origins suggest Milton and Paradise Lost, Hellboy doesn't pretend to any grandeur. His idea of poetry is, "Let's go fight some monsters." The underlying comic by Mike Mignola is just a decade old, so it draws not only from the DC and Marvel urtexts, but from Lucas and Spielberg as well. And the latter are better movie evangelists to follow.
As Indy has his "I hate snakes" moment and Chief Brody has his "We're going to need a bigger boat" moment in Jaws, Hellboy's little grace notes raise it just above its two-bit genre. Leaping casually from building top to building top, our hero suddenly realizes he's misjudged the next parapet, utters something like a midair "D'oh!," and plunges earthward. Even if his massive right hand is made of stone (the better to punch out evil), it's easier to root for a guy who's all thumbs.