Hellboy II: The Golden Army

| July 13, 2008

How cool is it that we live in a world where an enormous talent like Guillermo del Toro can manage to make not one, but two Hellboy films? The fact that this sequel improves upon the first outing in every category is just icing on the cake.
The last time around, Hellboy (Ron Perlman, The Last Winter) defeated a bevy of Lovecraft-inspired creatures and supernatural Nazis to save the world. Where that film drew from classic pulp stories, this installment pulls more from fantasy adventures like the Lord of the Rings trilogy with its story of Elf-Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, Blade II), who returns from exile and murders his father in a bid to take control of the Golden Army, a large collection of indestructible mechanized soldiers. Nuada’s sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton, Vampire Diary), escapes with the last piece of a crown that is needed to control the army. When she is discovered and taken in by Hellboy and his allies, a showdown becomes inevitable.
While the story works fine as a standard action-fantasy, it’s the characters and the relationships between them that del Toro is drawn to and the film is stronger for this focus. In fact, it could almost be argued that the story of the Golden Army is the subplot to the main focus of Hellboy’s growth from an impulsive, selfish hothead to a full-fledged hero. This is shown not just through his ability to stand up to the menace that Nuada presents, but in his romance with his literally explosive girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair, Legally Blonde). The mixture of love and frustration that they feel for the other is refreshingly honest as they both come to understand the concessions they have to make to stay together and survive in an increasingly hostile world.
But if all this talk of relationships makes you think that the film is a boring chick-flick, you’d be dead wrong. Even if it had failed on a story and character level, it would still be worth seeing for the imaginative visual world del Toro presents here. And oh my, does his imagination run wild. From a beautifully stylized prologue that tells the history of the Golden Army through the use of marionettes, shadow puppets and stop-motion animation to a troll market that makes the Cantina scene from Star Wars look like a visit to Moe’s Tavern, there is always a fascinating new sight to take in. Kudos to all the people who worked on the production design and the seamless makeup effects that give this world a tactile feel that CGI could never achieve on its own.
Thankfully, the cast is up to the highly creative standard of the rest of the film. Once again, Perlman gives an attitude and sharp wit to Hellboy that shines through the makeup. Where a lesser actor might be tempted to let the makeup give the performance and play the character as a generic badass, Perlman’s perfect comic timing and intensity keeps Hellboy grounded as a deeply flawed yet lovable hero. Appearing much more comfortable this time around, Blair brings a healthy dose of sincerity and becomes the beating heart of the movie as she takes a more proactive role in both the action and her relationship with Hellboy. Even Goss brings a deeply sympathetic sadness to his performance as Nuada. Even as he tries to destroy humanity, his misguided actions and beliefs are understandable and he comes across as more a victim of cruel circumstance than a straight villain.
The only misstep among the performers is from Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) as the voice of Johann Krauss, a bizarre new character to the Hellboy universe. While intended to provide comic relief, MacFarlane sabotages the character with a ridiculously over-the-top parody of a German accent that sounds like the voice used by the Volkswagen Beetle in a recent series of car commercials. It’s a disappointing choice that often elicits more groans than laughs.
Of course, MacFarlane’s performance may have been what del Toro asked for, because in the end, this film has his creative stamp all over it. Coming off the critical and commercial high of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro doesn’t play it safe with what could have easily been a mainstream superhero movie. Instead, he toys with audience expectations, shifting tones and subverting narrative assumptions to create a bizarre hybrid of action, fantasy, laugh-out-loud comedy and romance. What’s most amazing about this approach is how the film never feels sloppy or contrived. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace and the humor and fantasy elements dovetail nicely together to manage a tightrope walk between sincerity and satire.
This is the summer film that’s going to surprise a lot of people. It’s a giddy viewing experience that is constantly entertaining in unexpected ways and a confident display of del Toro’s prodigious abilities. Don’t miss it.

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