Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running time: 121 min.
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Jeffrey Tambor, John Alexander, James Dodd, Brian Steele, Roy Dotrice
Cameo: John Hurt, Jimmy Kimmel
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro (based on the Dark Horse comic book by Mike Mignola)
With Hellboy II: The Golden Army, writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Blade II, Mimic) continues his tradition of making visually magnificent spectacles that succeed not just through gorgeous eye candy, but by giving his characters the room to breathe. They aren't just the bad-ass means by which things blow up or buildings fall apart; they are fallible and flawed, who can be loved or loathed on their own terms, unapologetically just being who they were born to be. While it isn't the work of art of Pan's Labyrinth, as a pure popcorn movie goes, it gets credit for being unlike all of the rest, in its own little universe of comic book action that you either embrace wholeheartedly or scratch your head at in befuddlement. I happen to be one of the viewers on board, as action fantasy confections this entertaining don't come around very often, and while I will admit that the bells and whistles are more satisfying than the plot at hand, they are so sumptuously presented and prodigiously conceived, they breathe much needed freshness into what could have been a stale and mechanical adventure.
Hellboy II Starts off with a glimpse of the impish hero as a child, hearing a bedtime legend about an indestructible robot army that would give its leader enough power to perhaps take over the world. These events would eventually come into play in the present day, as a elfin creature of ancient nobility, Prince Nuada (Goss, Silver Hawk), is laboring to put together the three pieces of the golden crown that allows its wearer to command the mighty mythical force. Not much stands in Nuada's way save for Hellboy and his band of cronies in the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense).
In the realm of fantasy, arguably no greater visionary, save perhaps Peter Jackson, is working today, at least from a visual standpoint, than del Toro. Each creature in the film is stunning in its level of detail, and not just the main players. Take a trip to the land of trolls and you see literally dozens of creatures, with each type given an amazing amount of distinct characteristics to set them apart from all of the others, and most of them without any reason to be so dinstinctlive in the film. It's this kind of depth that should enthrall those who enjoy production design, and even without much of a story, Hellboy II nearly merits watching just for the stunning visual aspects of each creature, both magical and pathetic. One example: What would be just a mindless special effects scene that has Hellboy trying to take down a towering forest god in the middle of New York City is injected with a surprising element of pathos, as Nuada entreats Hellboy to show mercy to this creature, who is, like them, the last of its kind.
Del Toro would turn down quite a few opportunities to direct big budget films of high profile, but he was firmly committed to the follow-up to his smash first entry. Though there would be no guarantee that audiences would return (Hellboy barely broke even in its initial theatrical run), he appears to have put in his all in order to make this a captivating and amusing adventure. Very good character touches keep the dynamic among the players crisp and lively, and introducing another inventive character to join the motley band in German Johann Kraus (voiced by Seth MacFarlane, "Family Guy"), an ectoplasmic creature of gas who can control inanimate and mechanical objects, filling an inflatable humanoid suit. The action scenes aren't just mindless slugfests, as complications are tossed in, such as the fact that any injury inflicted on Nuada also damages his goodly twin sister Nuala (Walton, The Mutant Chronicles). That Hellboy sidekick Abe (Jones, this time voicing himself) is also smitten by her only further complicates Hellboy's resolve.
One senses that if one day del Toro would commit as much time to sharpening his plot and story as he does his character flourishes and visual presentation, he might truly make a masterwork to last for the ages. Alas, with such a commercial venture as this, it falls short of excellence, but it is low overhead fun in its own peculiar fashion -- engaging and hip -- which, in the realm of popcorn flicks, already puts in in the upper echelon of comic book adaptations. It's also one of the rare examples of a dumb fun film where you don't feel guilty for liking it, even when taking a moment to pause for a moment of glorious cheese as Hellboy and Abe Sapien get drunk and sing along with Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You".
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a little noisy, a little cluttered, a little lackadaisical, a little long, but still packs in enough good elements such that the curiosity of where these characters are headed and how they will react to each new environs makes it an entertaining jaunt straight through to the end. It's also a rare sequel that manages to live up to, and perhaps even exceed its predecessor, and while the ultimate jury might still be out in this regard, my personal pick of the two is for this entry, as there is less noticeable lag time (though it is still present). Developments such as an ominous prophecy and a surprise development in the relationship between Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz suggest del Toro has a continuation of the saga in mind, and that's just fine by me. Hellboy II never breaks out of its goofy comic book origins to become something truly special, but as a highly inventive dessert film, it hits the spot just right.
©2008 Vince Leo