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Between The Rock And A Hot Place 

There's hell to pay for mundane movies

Walking Tall is an example of what I like to call the "2am movie." It's the type of film invented for night owls and insomniacs, the sort of unexceptional, no-deep-thinking-required fare that plays best with a slice of cold pizza, a can of Coke, and the neighbor's dog howling in the background. To actually spend money to see something like this in a theater defies all logic: It's the equivalent of using a $20 bill to create an origami elephant.

Like the 1973 sleeper hit of the same name, Walking Tall is loosely based on the real-life tale of Sheriff Buford Pusser, a good ole boy (played by Joe Don Baker in the original) who walked determinedly and carried a big stick, which he used to whack the hell out of the criminals who were corrupting his Norman Rockwell-sanctioned small town.

For this new version, Buford Pusser has been given a name change; apparently, producers felt that audiences would titter uncontrollably whenever someone called The Rock "Buford" or "Mr. Pusser." Instead, the former wrestling star's character is named Chris Vaughn, and he's no longer a pudgy married man residing in Tennessee but a muscle-bound bachelor returning to his family home in Washington state. Upon arrival, he learns that the mill -- long the backbone of the community -- has been shut down, and the town's new lifeline is a casino owned by the local rich kid (Neal McDonough). It isn't long before the clean-cut Chris becomes fed up with this den of sin, and after getting elected sheriff, he commences his own clean-up campaign in typical two-fisted fashion.

The original Walking Tall appeared during a period in which vigilante pictures (many of them doubling as anti-Establishment flicks) were all the rage -- it followed on the heels of Billy Jack and Dirty Harry and preceded Death Wish, Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder. This new version isn't part of any greater whole: It's merely a watered-down version of Pusser's tale (PG-13, whereas the "73 version was rated R), retooled as a generic action vehicle. As he already demonstrated in The Rundown, The Rock has natural screen charisma (if limited acting abilities), but his hulking presence doesn't exactly make him a natural fit for the role of a regular guy tackling formidable odds -- his arms alone are as thick around as the piece of wood he carries everywhere, rendering the weapon extraneous.

The action scenes are competent if unimaginative, though I had to laugh when two men locked in combat roll down an endless hill without either of them being gutted by the hatchet one of them is firmly gripping all the way down. Beyond that chuckle-worthy moment, though, there's not much about this movie that sticks in the mind. Ask me about it next week, and I probably won't even remember if I saw it.

The beginning of Hellboy looks like the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that's a good thing. But the rest brings to mind last year's adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and that's not a comparison anyone would clamor to receive.

That's a shame, because I had high hopes for this adaptation of the popular Dark Horse Comics series. Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro previously brought us vampires in Cronos and Blade II, ghosts in The Devil's Backbone and oversized cockroaches in Mimic, demonstrating that he clearly has an affinity for creature features. And cult actor Ron Perlman, still best known for TV's Beauty and the Beast, isn't often handed leading roles, so it's nice to hear that del Toro fought hard to have him cast as the title character. Despite their combined efforts, this movie isn't original enough, exciting enough, or humorous enough to sustain interest, let alone spawn the expected sequel or two.

Kicking off during World War II, the movie finds a group of American G.I.s, with the British Professor Bloom in tow, thwarting an effort by the satanist Rasputin (Karel Roden) and his Nazi cohorts to open a portal that would literally turn the earth into a living hell. The good guys save the day, but not before a demonic baby manages to turn up from the other side. Dubbed Hellboy by his new "father" Professor Bloom, the red devil grows up under the auspices of a special branch of the FBI, a situation that allows a demon created as a force of evil to actually use his special gifts for the betterment of mankind. Now, decades later, the grown-up Hellboy (Perlman) and the elderly Professor Bloom (John Hurt) confront their greatest challenge when Rasputin and his minions return to continue where they left off.

Del Toro's grungy shooting style, appropriate for his other pictures, merely seems oppressive here, much in the same way that the look and feel of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen contributed to that movie's downfall. There are other unfortunate similarities between the films, including a cluttered set design, repetitive battle scenes that rarely vary in tone, and supporting heroes who prove to be annoying rather than endearing (in this case, they include a greenhorn FBI agent played by bland Rupert Evans and a telepathic sea creature who's a cross between Aquaman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon).

Perlman delivers a solid performance that exhibits a nice balance between Hellboy's outer gruffness and his inner sweetness, but the character is saddled with an endless supply of perfectly awful wisecracks that become harder to endure as the picture progresses. Superheroes have always been known for their affinity for groan-inducing shtick (Spider-Man and The Thing were traditionally among the top practitioners), but when compared to Hellboy and his ear-damaging asides, everybody else comes across as Richard Pryor in his prime.

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