Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Theaters: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Poster image found at
I was planning to maybe do something bigger for post number two hundred (which this is), but there are too many other things I want to do first. I'll get to what I was planning later, it's not really time sensitive, but I want to deal with the backlog first.

An unlikely sequel to a film that didn’t make a lot of money to start with, HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY delivers just about everything the first movie did, and a bit more. I liked HELLBOY when I first saw it, and subsequent viewings made me see how well put together a film it really is. This second cinematic outing for Mike Mignola’s unique comics hero is just as entertaining, possibly more so, and after SPEED RACER’s hasty departure from theaters it’s good to have another kind of wild imaginative fantasy to entertain us. There’s a lot to love in this movie, one which manages to be rich and colorful and action-packed while still doing right by its characters.

The film revolves around the legend of the faerie folk, who used to live alongside mankind but have since been forced into the shadows. A long time ago there was a war, which the fey fought with an army of indestructible robotic soldiers who were, you guessed it, gold. A truce was called, and the faerie king (Roy Dotrice) broke up the crown which controlled the army into three pieces. Cut to the present day, where faerie prince Nuada (Luke Goss) has had enough of humanity’s encroachment on their kind, and sets out to retrieve the pieces of the crown- starting with one being sold at auction in Manhattan, which he purloins by killing everyone present.

Enter Hellboy (Ron Perlman). He’s a demon by birth, but was raised from infancy by a human professor (John Hurt) as a result of a transdimensional incident back in WWII, and is now an agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, working under the exasperated Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor.) He lives with his fellow agent and girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who can immolate things in a wide radius, sometimes without even trying. They’ve been having relationship difficulties, which don’t dissipate when an investigation of the Manhattan incident suddenly makes the top secret bureau not so secret. As they get dragged further into the investigation, the noncorporeal but highly authoritarian Johann Krauss (voiced by FAMILY GUY creator Seth MacFarlane) is brought in to try and keep Hellboy under control (it doesn’t work so well), and intellectual amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) finds himself falling for Nuada’s twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton), who holds a piece of the crown.

This is both a superhero movie of sorts and a monster movie of an entirely different sort, Hellboy himself having been created in a nexus between genres. Influenced in equal parts by H. P. Lovecraft and Marvel comics, Hellboy’s world is one full of nasty squiggly things out to destroy humanity and ancient horrors whose names have been lost to recorded history. Meanwhile, the character himself is a gruff, cigar-chomping bruiser who solves most problems with his stone-like right hand, or if that’s not enough, really big guns.

Having mostly done battle with a horde of tentacled hounds in the first movie, Hellboy now faces a much wider variety of monsters in the employ of the Prince. There’s a horde of carnivorous fairies with huge teeth, a troll looking like he’s stepped out of Middle Earth, a giant forest god, and a few other surprises. It’s almost like a Ray Harryhausen film, where the plot is geared to introduce as many strange creatures as the budget will allow. However, the story isn’t weak because of this; Hellboy continues to crave acceptance from the world around him and Liz in particular, a plotline that diverges significantly from the comics (wherein the BPRD has been public knowledge from the start and Hellboy is a beloved figure) but provides a good character arc without bogging the proceedings down in angst. Abe’s affection for Nuala- who like him, can sense people on a deeper level than us mortals- is played with a similar light touch. Some bits of the plot are kind of predictable, but others do genuinely manage to take us by surprise.

The casting of Ron Perlman as Hellboy was inspired from the start, and the attitude he brings with him helps define the tenor of the whole film. He’s a straightforward and unpretentious kind of guy, fond of TV, beer, jazz LPs, 8-track tapes and other pop culture miscellany. He’s got a messy room and an inclination to punch first and ask questions later. Despite being a demon (who regularly files his horns down into circular stumps), he’s a working joe who isn’t fazed by much, and this helps keep the film grounded. Guillermo Del Toro can give us flights of fancy, show us the wonders of a troll market, the pomp of a faerie court, and moments that are downright poetic, but lest the film take anything too seriously Hellboy and his misfit teammates are there to pop any pretension. Perlman is as on form as ever, and Doug Jones, fresh of an amazing tour de force in Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, finally gets to provide the voice of Abe Sapien as well as the body. (In the first film he was dubbed over by David Hyde Pierce at the studio’s insistence, though Pierce, to his credit, refused to be credited.)

The effects in this film are worth remarking upon, if only because they look about twice as good as they cost. The film’s budget was around seventy-five million dollars, which sadly is not that much for a genre film anymore, but not only is there an awful lot of effects work in this picture, it looks brilliant. The combination of CGI and practical work is very smooth, and the look of the film is utterly splendid, rich in reds and golds. The battle with the forest giant has a particularly elegiac ending, of the sort you don’t expect to see.

Flaws crop up here and there, the biggest of which is that Selma Blair as Liz does not get a whole lot to do. She apparently got the short straw as far as character development, and though she has a couple of good scenes her characterization actually feels less consistent than it was in the previous film. I’m not sure how that works. I’m not entirely sure all of the plot holds together, and a couple of story elements- well, they’ll make HELLBOY III complicated if/when that gets made.

My overall impression of this film, though, is that it’s just packed with entertaining things. You have monster fights. You have ancient cities and sinister fairy tale creatures entering the world. You have a love story between an albino and a fish. You have a man made of gas living inside a pressure suit trying to give orders to a surly reformed demon. You have relationship troubles between said demon and a woman who catches fire. And when you think they’ve run out of tricks, we get a song.

In short, this is quality. It’s high on imagination and low on anything that would dilute it, even writing out the “viewpoint” character from the last movie (an agreeable but ultimately redundant figure played by Rupert Evans.) There’s very little of it that doesn’t work, and what doesn’t is quickly glossed over in the mix. It may be a while before we see HELLBOY III, as Del Toro is planning an extended visit to Hobbiton in the near future, but I can’t say we’ve been left unsatisfied.

Based on the comic book created by Mike Mignola
Story by Mike Mignola and Guillermo Del Toro
Written for the screen and directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Grade: A-

1 comment:

patrick said...

Hellboy is dependably fun; for sure that director has an amazing imagination, reminds me of his work in Pan's Labyrinth