Guillermo del Toro has made a career of bouncing back and forth between intimate, indie horror films and higher-budgeted Hollywood studio pics. Last year his beloved fantasy film 'Pan's Labyrinth' (which he wrote, directed and produced) collected six Oscar nominations and ushered the foul-mouthed Mexican auteur through a new threshold. With 'Hellboy II: The Golden Army' del Toro returns to studio filmmaking where he left it, but now armed with the clout and budget to deliver a comic book movie as a rich fantasy piece that only he could envision.
The movie picks up a year or so after the previous effort. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz (Selma Blair) are sharing a room at the BPRD and squabbling like any couple who have departed the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) is frustrated with his big Red ward, who refuses to maintain a low profile as ordered. Hellboy, it seems, now craves the adulation of the public.
At the same time, the fairy Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) has resolved to assemble the three parts of the royal crown which will allow him to activate the invincible Golden Army of clockwork soldiers, wage war on humankind and bring is people out from the shadows they've been forced to inhabit for many centuries.
As Hellboy realizes that the love of a good woman or an adoring public are difficult to hang onto, he starts to wonder if he's fighting on the wrong side by killing creatures that he sometimes resembles.
If you're a del Toro fan...
'Hellboy II' is clearly a Guillermo del Toro movie, far moreso than the previous film or its del Toro-produced animated follow ups. It is, front to back, stuffed with fantastic creatures and rich mythologies.
The movie opens with a wooden puppet recreation of the story of the Golden Army's inception. From there we go to the halls of the BRPD, where strange monsters are glimpsed here and there as Abe Sapien (Doug Jones – and only Doug Jone) brings Manning up to speed on the state of affairs. Then it's off to the auction house where Nuada unleashes the hulking Mr. Wink and a swarm of tooth fairies, which a short time later prove to be among the most formidable creatures the BPRD team has faced. That is, until a giant Earth Elemental begins to destroy the city.
And that's just the first act.
I would defy anyone to gather more than ten minutes of footage from 'Hellboy II' where some fanciful creature or mythological technology is not on-screen. Fans of del Toro know it's not only about wonderful creatures, but the way in which they resonate with a sense of history and purpose. You're not always told the back story and inner-workings of the myriad of creatures you see in this film, but you have a clear scenes that there is a back story and that the inner-workings are fully thought out.
The movie is like 'Pan's Labyrinth' with all the talking parts removed and then pumped with a giant syringe of adrenaline. It may be nothing more than a big-budget, popcorn action vehicle for allowing del Toro to pour his imagination onto the screen, but that's certainly not a bad thing.
If you're a Mike Mignola fan...
Fans of the Hellboy comics may have a more difficult time enjoying the movie. As someone who has read just about every Hellboy comic since the character first appeared in 'John Byrne's Next Men', I have to say I had some reservations about del Toro's handling of the characters.
Hellboy seems like quite a bully in the early goings of the film. Yes, smashing things is his bit, but I don't recall him being so aggressively cruel as he is in this movie, punching trolls who don't answer his questions and bitch-slapping one character repeatedly with his iron hand in order to extract info.
Liz Sherman has it even worse. When we first meet her she's shrieking at Hellboy in what's meant to be a lover's quarrel. However, we have no idea what her issues are so she just comes off like a shrewish harridan. She's the girlfriend you desperately hope your pal is going to dump soon.
I will say that the two seem to find their legs by the end of the third act.
Abe comes across as quite fey, in contrast to the capable agent we see in the current 'B.P.R.D.' comics.
The Johann Krauss character (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) has it the worst. Del Toro's treatment of this character reminds me a bit of Joel Schumacher's treatment of various Batman villains: the name and likeness are used, but the character is otherwise relegated to some role that conveniently fits the plot, but isn't aligned with their comic persona. Here Krauss is a veteran B.P.R.D. agent who is imported to reign in Hellboy's antics. He essentially replaces Manning as the annoying authority figure in the film.
I'm not usually one to quibble with deviations from the source material and, truth be told, my discomfort with these off-note characterizations were easily offset by the wonders of Guillermo’s creature-generating mind.
All told, 'Hellboy II: The Golden Army' is a rich fantasy adventure, framed as superhero action. Guillermo's beautiful and sweeping depictions of a secret world populated innumerable creatures, bizarre and breathtaking, is a joy to behold. If you can cope with deviations from the comic mythos, and some bumpy plotting here and there, the realm of the Golden Army is a place well worth jouneying to.