Guillermo del Toro first made his mark in the United States by directing highly effective genre films such as Blade II and Mimic (still one of the most underrated horror films of the last decade, in my opinion). With 2004's Hellboy, based on a popular Top Cow comic book series by Mike Mignola, he scored a genuine box office hit. The filmmaker theoretically could have cashed in, but instead made the Spanish-language adult fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth, which turned out to be a modern masterpiece that earned him immense critical acclaim. Part of what's great about Hellboy II: The Golden Army is that it nicely bridges del Toro's commercial side with his artistic side. This movie is a ton of fun, yet it also makes significant artistic strides over the original.
Ron Perlman returns as Hellboy, the red, horned superhero who, you may recall, crossed over into our dimension during WWII and now works as part of a secret government agency dedicated to the paranormal. After a brief prologue showing Hellboy as a young lad, we find him experiencing an intense lovers' spat with his (literally) fiery girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair). Their relationship woes are put on the backburner when some strange, slithery creatures known as "tooth fairies" disrupt a fancy auction. A power-mad villain named Nuada (Luke Goss), who is the prince of an underworld nation, has come to seize one of the auction items; it appears to be a beautiful piece of metal artwork, but in reality it is the final piece of a special crown. Whoever wears the three pieces of that crown can summon the Golden Army - a long-dormant militia that had previously tried to wage war against the human race before a truce was called.
Hellboy, Liz, and fish-man cohort Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) attempt to track Prince Nuada down to stop him from re-awakening the Golden Army and re-starting the conflict between humans and ground-dwellers. Fortunately, he has a twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who disapproves of his plan. She swipes the final piece of the crown and offers to help Hellboy and crew. She also captures the attention of Abe, who discovers feelings he never knew he could have. The search for Nuada requires finding a troll market as well as the entrance to a subterranean fortress. Because Hellboy has a habit of blowing his cover, the paranormal agency he works for assigns him a watchdog: Johann Krauss is a German robot-looking creature with a smoke-filled glass dome where his head should be.
Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics always had two trademarks: one was a visual style filled with deep saturated colors, and the other was a really offbeat sense of humor. The movie captures both those things. To get the original Hellboy made, Guillermo del Toro had to keep the budget down. (His decision to cast the best actor for the lead role rather than an A-list star also contributed to that.) The success of that first film allowed him to get a bigger budget this time and, consequently, a much richer visual look. Everything about Hellboy II looks better: the set design, the make-up, the special effects and, of course, the creatures. Building on Mignola's style, del Toro gives us one imaginatively bizarre creature after another. Watching the film, there were times when I thought of the cantina scene in Star Wars. The first time I saw that - at age nine - I was blown away by the sheer number of fascinating beings filling the screen. You really get that sense here too, and it makes the picture feel very much like a live-action version of the comics.
If Hellboy II perfects its representation of the comic's style, it just as confidently perfects its representation of the humor. This is a faster, funnier movie. Now that the original has established the origin story, the sequel is free to go deeper, both in search of laughs and of heart. The characters, by this point, are developed enough that there's more room for them to play off one another. I especially liked the hilarious scene in which Hellboy and Abe, both a little sloshed, bond over their romantic foibles and fondness for an old Barry Manilow tune. Perhaps the funniest element (other than Hellboy's continued penchant for muttering "Oh, crap!" at every turn) is the depiction of Johann Krauss. As voiced in a thick German accent by "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane, the character is memorable for his weird-sounding bon mots. Everything he says generates a laugh simply because of how enthusiastically McFarlane reads the lines.
The humor is all well and good, but the necessity of any good superhero movie is the action, and it's here that Hellboy II really kicks it up a notch. The action scenes are fast-paced and full of effects, but never at the expense of their place in the story. We get one creatively-conceived battle after another, the best of which is the final confrontation against Nuada and the Golden Army. Set in an underground world, Hellboy and crew fight the mechanical army amid giant cogs and wheels they have to avoid getting crushed in. For reasons I won't specify here, Hellboy also has to fight a certain way so as to avoid a particularly unfortunate outcome. Earlier, there's a sequence in which Hellboy, Abe, and Liz are attacked by a million little flying creatures with razor-sharp teeth. All these scenes are magnificently staged. You really get a lot of bang for your buck.
What I admire most about del Toro is that he's a true fantasist who knows how to tell a simple-yet-effective fantasy story. Once again, he creates an entire world of imagine that we can - and want to - get lost in. It's kind of rare to find an instance where the sequel tops the original, but this is one of them. Hellboy II: The Golden Army hits just the right mixture of style, comedy, action, and character development. Here's hoping for a third installment.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language. The running time is 2 hours.
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