Dir: Guillermo del Toro. US. 2003. 122 mins.

Their web sites have been spreading pre-release buzz for weeks and comic book geeks won't be disappointed when Guillermo del Toro's handsome and long-awaited big screen take on artist Mike Mignola's Hellboy opens in the US this weekend. Whether broad mainstream audiences will be as enthusiastic is, however, less certain. Despite its visual flair, impressive effects and engaging portrait of a quirky outsider hero, Del Toro's film never quite transcends its comic book origins in the way that the best recent comic adaptations - like Spider-Man and X2 - have managed to do.

In their effort to win over mainstream audiences, Revolution Studios and worldwide distributor Sony will be helped by the advance buzz, a PG-13 US rating (del Toro's March 2002 comic-based release Blade II had an R rating and it still managed $81m domestically) and an aggressive marketing campaign. Favourable release slots - the film won't arrive in Europe until the autumn - might also help in some international markets. On the downside, Sony will have some work to do selling a character that is not nearly as widely known as the likes of Spidey and the X-Men.

Mignola's creation has featured over the past decade in a series of popular Dark Horse Comic books. Mexican director Del Toro (who also wrote the adaptation) covers the back story with an exciting World War II prologue in which a baby demon with a strange stone arm is summoned to earth by resurrected Russian monk Rasputin and his Nazi sponsors but rescued from the bad guys by paranormal expert Professor Broom. Cut to the present day, where Hellboy, now a hulking and moody red-skinned adult with filed-down horns, works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence, helping his father figure the Prof (Hurt) keep humankind safe from evil other-worldly invaders.

Hellboy's Bureau 'family' - one of several story elements echoing the X-Men set up - also includes a telepathic 'Mer-Man' (apparently voiced by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce, from Frasier), troubled 'pyro-kinetic' Liz (Blair) and Prof Broom's young human protege John (newcomer Evans).

The plot gets into motion when monstrous hellhound Sammael appears on earth, closely followed by Rasputin (Czech star Roden) and masked, sword-wielding Nazi Kroenen (the story's kinkiest and most intriguing villain). The mad monk, it turns out, wants to use Hellboy to bring the Gods of Chaos - who appear to be giant octopus-like creatures floating in space - to Earth to precipitate the Apocalypse.

The plot may be convoluted but the action that erupts frequently comes down to a slugging match between Hellboy and Sammael (who quickly starts reproducing) and/or Kroenen, with locations including a deserted museum and a busy subway station. The effects - the monsters are mostly played by made up actors but the action sequences are heavily enhanced with CG work - are impressive (considering the film's reported $60m budget) and occasionally, as was the case in Del Toro's Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, quite beautiful. Particularly effective is the nicely designed climactic sequence set in the vast catacombs beneath Rasputin's grave.

Del Toro reportedly fought to cast character actor Ron Perlman (Blade II, The Name Of The Rose) rather than a more familiar star as the film's title character and Perlman delivers with a performance that makes Hellboy seem like an appealingly soulful version of Bruce Willis' Die Hard persona.

Cast and director insert some humour by giving the Bureau's fantastic heroes a few human foibles - Hellboy has a taste for cigars and candy bars and hates people staring at his horns - and the film attempts to weave a couple of emotional threads through its action. A triangular love story involving Hellboy, Liz and John has one or two effective moments but it sometimes robs the film of momentum.

Most damaging, though, is the film's refusal to streamline its story to maximise dramatic effect. Fans of the comic book series will probably love the multitude of villains and the magnitude of the final showdown between good and evil. But casual viewers are likely to feel that there's just too much going on. Eventually, all the monsters and mythology obscure the emotional through-lines that might have drawn non-geeks deeper into the story.

Prod cos: Revolution Studios, Dark Horse Entertainment
US dist: Columbia Pictures
Int'l dist:
Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson, Lloyd Levin
Exec prod:
Patrick Palmer
Co-exec prod:
Mike Mignola
Del Toro
Del Toro and Peter Briggs, based upon the Dark Horse comic created by Mike Mignola
Guillermo Navarro
Prod des:
Stephen Scott
Peter Amundson
Costume des:
Wendy Partridge
Marco Beltrami
Main cast:
Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden, Rupert Evans, John Hurt