Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Luke Goss. Anna Walton, John Hurt
Running Time: 120 min.
***1/2 (out of ****)
In case you didn't hear, 2008 is the year of the superhero film. The most recent entry, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army was the one I was looking forward to the least. More accurately, I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I enjoyed the 2004 film for what is was but it didn’t strike me as a story that needed to be continued and I definitely could have lived without seeing any of the characters on the big screen again. But since this is a comic book character with a solid fan base and the film brought in a modest amount of money its sequel was inevitable.
Burnt out on superhero films already I had to force myself to watch this, and that I ended up enjoying it so much despite my attitude going in speaks volumes. This film does everything a sequel should, then takes a few steps further and does even more than that. The story is more interesting, the characters evolve and deepen and the sense of wonder that was hinted at in the original is fully realized. Like the best sequels, seeing the previous film isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying it. Those unfamiliar with the character’s history may actually enjoy it more, because they can just lose themselves in the wonder of it all and not nitpick the details. It’s also more involving than the two other superhero outings this summer, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (The Dark Knight shouldn't be considered a superhero film).
I’m now convinced this franchise, which on paper boasts a ridiculous and unfilmable premise, is successful because of Del Toro, and if anyone else directed it would be a failure. The guy just gets it. Watching, I was reminded of Star Wars, only not the torturous prequels George Lucas inflicted on us, but the real thing. If Lucas saw this film it would probably be a wake-up call and a reminder of what he used to do well. He could learn something. And if he ever got the itch to revisit that classic series (which isn’t out of the realm of possibility) Del Toro would be the only filmmaker capable of making it work. He proves it here. When it ended I had only one question: "When is Hellboy III?"
In a brief prologue, young Hellboy’s adoptive father (John Hurt) tells him the legend of The Golden Army, essentially a band of mechanical monster soldiers once called upon to wreck havoc on humanity. And now, centuries later and after laying dormant for years, the evil elf Prince Nuada (Luke Gross) looks to recover the three pieces of the golden crown, that if assembled, gives him control over the Golden Army, the potential consequences of which are very, very bad. Family loyalty isn’t exactly high on the Prince’s priority list and he’s determined to do whatever it takes to get the third piece of that crown from his disapproving twin sister, Nuala (Anna Walton). She needs help.
Enter New Jersey’s “Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development” which includes the wise cracking cigar chomping Hellboy (Ron Perlman), his girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who’s pretty normal save for the fact that she spontaneously bursts into flames at a moment’s notice, and his amphibious sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). And of course there’s their boss, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) who can’t control any of them so this time brings in snooty know-it-all Johann Kraus (voiced by Seth MacFarlane). He ends up being a welcome addition and serves the story well. Together they have to stop the elf Prince from getting his hands on the missing piece from his sister and unleashing the Army.
Nearly all the effects in this movie are CGI and for a change it’s actually necessary to announce that because it isn’t glaringly obvious. This is good CGI, not the kind you saw in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In other words, it looks real and doesn’t call attention to itself or take you out of the movie. It draws you in. You have to wonder how Del Toro is able to do this so effectively while big names like Lucas and Spielberg (who are working within a massive budget) look like they’re making cheap video games. And because the effects scenes are handled with intelligence and restraint the rest of the film ends up coming off better as a result.
Some of these scenes are just jaw-dropping, specifically a street fight with a giant mutant plant known as the Elemental Forest God and the climactic battle that closes the film. A visit to the Troll Market recalls the cantina scene in Star Wars in visual detail as much as setting. It would have been easy for Del Toro and co-writer/comic creator Mike Mignola to just rest on their laurels when it comes to story and get away with it since the film looks so good but they don’t compromise there either.
Sequels to comic book movies are hard because once you get past the origin story (where most of the interest lies) there’s the question of what's left. That initial feeling of discovery for the audience where we watch the protagonist get to know themselves and their abilities are gone and a new plot has to be concocted, seemingly out of thin air. And it’s difficult deciding not only where to take your hero, but the supporting characters as well. That’s why so many sequels in this genre fail.
Here a cleverly fashioned plot takes advantage of Hellboy coming to grips with his identity and having somewhat of a public relations problem. He and Liz are now a bickering couple, which should be very annoying, yet isn’t because Perlman and Blair are so entertaining together. The performance of Perlman is destined to go underappreciated since its masked under CGI and pounds of makeup. It’s almost impossible to believe there’s actually an actor under there, a sign Perlman was born to do this. He adds the humor, which is integral to the series, setting it apart in a genre that usually basks in dreariness. And you have to love any superhero movie that features a drunken Barry Manilow sing-along.
Liz was already the rarest of superhero love interests in that she was an independent thinker who actually did something. That’s improved upon even further here, as she’s now a full-fledged ass-kicking heroin who does what she wants. If anything, Hellboy has to lean on her for guidance. And Abe, a pretty forgettable second-hand in the previous film, is given an excellent supporting story that lets us know more about him as a character. I hardly remember a thing he did in the original but he nearly steals the show in this. The entire plot is very much of the fantasy nature and doesn’t contain a great deal of depth but for what it is it’s very tightly constructed and doesn’t hit many wrong notes. But while the writing delivers, its Del Toro’s direction that holds it all together so well.
I had ZERO interest in seeing this and know next to nothing about Hellboy as a comic character, so if I like this that much then actual fans are in for a huge treat. Why the director of 2006’s Academy Award nominated Pan’s Labyrinth would use his newfound clout to direct a sequel to what was only a mildly successful superhero film was a mystery to me. Now it isn’t. Del Toro knew he could make it better and it’s because of filmmakers like him that these types of movies are of a higher quality than ever before.
The past year in cinema has proven that he word “sequel” no longer has to have a negative connotation if the person behind the camera knows what they’re doing. We’ll get sequels for Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk and I’ll watch and probably enjoy them. But I can’t say that they’d be necessary. With Hellboy II, Del Toro has actually earned the right to continue and I’m anxious to see where he takes us next.