Guillermo del Toro directed the first Hellboy? Really? That's the guy who did Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage, right?
It's hard to reconcile the beautiful nightmares that are the latter flicks with the sluggish, uninspiring first Big Red venture. But this may be one of those rare occasions when the sequel far exceeds the original. Hellboy II: The Golden Army harmonizes the fanciful way del Toro builds monsters with the gruff, very American, filed-down devil. Visual effects are not only perfectly wrought, but the creatures, settings and battles surprise again and again. The world seems fully re-imagined in this Hellboy outing because of the fresh-faced beasts.
The plot is nothing special. There are no twists, and most audiences will probably know exactly what’s going to happen. Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) is a blond-haired elf prince (like a hellish Legolas) who wants to restore the glory of his race after years of suppression by humans. A truce between the races demanded humans keep to the cities and leave the forests to the elves. But, of course, humans trashed acres of nature, so Nuada says the truce is over.
He wants to make himself the leader of a massive golden army that will bring about the destruction of mankind. Nuada is arrogant and ruthless but makes a good case for why he's doing what he's doing. His motives and his complex, creepy relationship with a traitorous twin sister make him a better foe than any we've seen this summer.
Because of del Toro's refusal to genrefy, Hellboy II never touches the conveyor belt that carries oh-so-many Hollywood comic-book movies to theaters.
Similarly, The Golden Army takes the opportunity to dig around in Hellboy's emotional troubles. His girlfriend, Liz (Selma Blair), is flipping out, and his new relationship is on the rocks. He attempts to go from being a government secret to a media figure within the first few minutes of the film. Sadly, the human world doesn't receive him well, probably because he looks so much like Satan. This gives Nuada the opportunity to point out: "You have more in common with us than them, demon," adding new crags and canyons to HB's inner landscape.
Ron Perlman does a fantastic job under the layers of latex and paint that make up the Hellboy character. Perlman's got plenty of experience with acting under a mask, as he played the half-lion, half-man Vincent for years opposite Linda Hamilton in the '80s TV series "Beauty and the Beast."
He works his eyes, body language and voice extensively to develop his fully flawed, totally likable, beer-swigging, cigar-puffing character. Half impulsive rock star, half hardy soldier type, Hellboy is yet another twisted savior in the dark-hero parade that's ambling into our consciousness. Who needs goody two-shoes Superman when the son of the devil can save mankind?
Romantic interest Liz is all right—she fights, at least—though she seems an awfully sulky counterpart to HB's robust, rough-and-tumble Everyman.
Some critics are calling out director del Toro for barfing an identity crisis all over the big screen. Is he an artsy poet or a fartsy pulpmaster? But why not be both? Because of del Toro's refusal to genrefy, Hellboy II never touches the conveyor belt that carries oh-so-many Hollywood comic-book movies to theaters in the summer months. These flicks are often judged based on how well they hold up to the pulp versions. But when new territory is covered, when the character or its world is recast, the film avoids becoming yet another indistinguishable product in a sea of hundreds. In a fight, Big Red easily punches out Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Still, a figure donning a pointy-eared black mask bides his time in the shadows. If he’s weaker than expected, Hellboy could easily be the best we see this season—and he’s pretty good.