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Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 July 2008
Bless Guillermo del Toro. This director knows a terrific actor when he sees one, and he saw one in the otherwise underused Ron Perlman. The actor appeared in del Toro’s first feature, “Cronos” (1993) and again in “Blade II.” Having been the unlovely half of the TV series “Beauty and the Beast,” Perlman is accustomed to working in a lot of makeup. He knows how to deliver a sharp, even subtle, performance through layers of latex; he’s a very good actor even without makeup (and he didn’t have any in “Cronos”), but he tends to be underused by Hollywood.

When del Toro became the director of “Hellboy,” based on Mike Mignola’s comic book, he had only one actor in mind for the lead role, a demon from Hell who has managed to wind up working for the forces of good. Hellboy isn’t just your ordinary demon—but to a large degree, he’s your ordinary American guy. He likes to spend a lazy afternoon watching sports and Abbott and Costello on TV, with pizza and beer at his side. He loves cats, cigars and candy bars, he tends to be a bit lazy, and he’s quietly but solidly in love with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). He met her in the first movie; she, too, is something of a freak (their word): she can burst into flame and control the fire around her.

The two of them work for the U.S. government’s top-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense; along with their water-breathing pal, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), they live at the B.P.R.D.’s New Jersey headquarters. Their boss is the completely human and completely rules-following Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, also from the first movie).

Back in 1955, when he was about 11, Hellboy lived with his foster father Professor “Broom” Bruttenholm (John Hurt); the juvenile demon—all read, with docked horns and intact tail—loves “Howdy Doody” and whatever else pops up on TV. But Broom reads him a tale of the distant past (Hellboy envisions the participants as puppets): King Balor (Roy Dotrice), leader of the supernatural denizens of the night, at the end of a hard-fought war with humankind, has reached a truce with humanity. The vast (70 times 70) army of golden supernatural robots is hidden away, but Balor’s son Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wants to set it free and regain the Earth for the powers of darkness.

Manning is delighted to welcome his new superior, Johan Kraus. He’s encased entirely in a pressure suit; Kraus, a mystic, accidentally turned himself into pure, smoky protoplasm, now contained by the suit. He’s even more of a by-the-book commander than Manning, and begins issuing brisk, Germanic orders left and right. He’s something like C3P0, if he were in charge.
Meanwhile, Nuada has decided it’s time to begin the actions that will climax with the resurrection of the Golden Army. This involves unleashing hordes of Tooth Fairies—not what you think; they eat bones, beginning with the teeth—on an auction where part of his father’s crown is up for bids. His twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), cannot prevent him from killing their father as well.

The debacle at the auction brings for Hellboy, Abe and Liz—and now the regular public gets a good look at the big red guy, who couldn’t care less, not even that everyone thinks he’s ugly. But Kraus wants to launch his forces against Nuada, and he wants Hellboy on his team.

The screenplay by del Toro gets a little clumsy at times. Hellboy is concerned that Liz wants to leave him; he can’t figure out why. He’s helpful, friendly, not inclined to destroy things—what could she want? The problem with the script is that WE never know what she wants, either. We do learn she has a secret, but it’s the sort of thing that you’d expect would bring them together, not split them up. This mystery of Liz’s urge to leave is never explained. Nuada and Nuala are linked like the Corsican Brothers—each feels what the other feels. This idea seems to go nowhere, until the climax, where we see why it’s in the story. (But why are the twins’ faces stark white with thin scars?) Also, when the dreaded Golden Army is finally unleashed, it doesn’t really do very much, though what it does, it does very loudly.

There’s a wonderfully grotesque scene at the Troll Market, pretty much what non-New Yorkers expect to find under the ground in Manhattan: bizarre creatures of every type milling around, buying and selling very strange, sometimes disturbing, items of commerce. Hellboy has to get some information, which, not surprisingly, considering it’s Hellboy, includes a lot of fighting and leaping about. During this event, Abe meets Princess Nuala, and they immediately, if bashfully, begin to fall in love. (Just why also goes unexplained, but that’s not a big issue.)

Poor Hellboy, poor Abe, longing for their sweeties. They hang out together, get drunk and sing along with Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You.” Here’s were del Toror’s skill and his actors’ talents pay off: this sounds like a throwaway scene, but it’s one of the highlights of the movie—and nothing much actually happens. But it’s funny, touching and charming, the kind of thing you’ll play back on the eventual DVD several times.

There’s some action with Kraus, who can temporarily raise the dead (demonstrating this by briefly reviving an expired Tooth Fairy). His officiousness and bossy nature piss off Hellboy, who punches him—breaking his glass helmet and allowing Kraus’ smoky self to seep out. But this hardly leaves him helpless. (Kraus is played alternately by John Alexander and James Dodd, and has the crisp, annoying voice of Seth McFarlane.)

This is another slight weakness of the film—things sort of stop for a while in the middle. Yes, Nuada is still trying to collect all the parts of his father’s crown, which will enable him to revive the Golden Army, but we have to wait for that part of the plot to re-engage several times. It does, sometimes spectacularly, as when Nuada awakens some kind of elemental, like a giant tree with sinuous, writhing trunks. It’s both scary and beautiful as it tries to establish itself in downtown Manhattan. Even when it’s defeated, its form is covered in blossoming flowers.

Del Toro is one of the most visually creative and ingenious directors working today. When the hordes of Tooth Fairies swarm all over the people, including BPRD agents, they’re so messy and goopy that they get slime all over the camera lens. Almost everything seems to involve vast, gleaming clockwork mechanisms, from the tiny to the gigantic—the last be battle between Hellboy and Nuada seems to be fought amidst the gears of a gargantuan clock.

He’s also playful. If you keep your eyes on TV screens in the background, you’ll get glimpses of “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” among other surprising sights. (Del Toro, a horror movie fan, is elated that because this movie is released by Universal, his beloved Hellboy is now among the ranks of the great monsters of the studio’s long past.) A derelict theater’s marquee reads “See You Next Wednesday,” an example of a director making an in-joke about another director’s in-joke (in this case, John Landis). At least one of the huge, inhuman trolls at the Troll Market talks with a thick Noo Yawkah accent. When Manning thanks one of the two heads of a troll, it smiles and replies, “I’m a tumor.”

Though the movie sags a little in the mid-stretch, although some questions aren’t answered, the characters are mostly charming and funny—Kraus is a particular delight, with his brisk, rapid-fire orders and testy nature. Prince Nuala is something of a cipher, but he does fight like he stepped in from a Hong Kong martial arts action film. Jeffrey Tambor doesn’t have as much to do this time, a bit of a shame, because he’s such a skilled comic actor.

I found this film a little less satisfying than the first one, but only a little. It’s great summer movie fun, with Guillermo del Toro working in a style as visually lush but less dramatic than “Pan’s Labyrinth.” And it also has a simply great performance by Ron Perlman, who makes Hellboy a solid, believable character, immensely likeable and ingratiating. I suspect sales of Tecate beer are going to rise.

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