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Hellboy II: The Golden Army   C+

Universal Pictures / Relativity Media

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Mike Mignola
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, John Alexander, James Dodd, Luke Gross, Anna Walton, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hurt.

Review by Rob Vaux

I just can't figure it out: I love Guillermo del Toro, I adore Ron Perlman, and I remain fascinated by the work of Mike Mignola. And yet for the second film in a row, I'm curiously nonplussed by their adaptation of Mignola's infernal superhero Hellboy. This latest go-round features a number of improvements over the original, but still can't shake the random grab-bag quality that kept it from solidifying into a coherent whole.

Del Toro's imagination remains as potent as ever as he returns to the story of an outcast demon working for the U.S. government to protect humanity from things Not Of This World. Hellboy II: The Golden Army settles on a fulcrum much more suited to his tastes than the Lovecraftian squids of the first film. This time, it's an upstart elven prince (Luke Goss) causing all the trouble. Armed with clockwork automatons and a host of fairy-tale monstrosities, he intends to wipe mankind off the face of the planet, setting him on a collision course with Hellboy and his mates. The cultural underpinnings of such mythical figures speak very deeply to del Toro, who develops them into a bevy of nifty effects-based set pieces. The best are a swarm of carnivorous "tooth fairies" and a Godzilla-like forest god set loose on New York, both of whom provide more than enough visual kick to grab our attention. More importantly, the villains resonate with an unexpected (and surprisingly poignant) sense of tragedy. Humanity has despoiled their forests and meadows, forcing them to adapt to squalid urban lifestyles or else vanish altogether. Their prince strikes back as a means of survival, decrying the greed of man in a manner which -- given the circumstances -- makes a great deal of sense. Del Toro applies his keen imagination to flesh them out, touched by the same contrast between sylvan woodlands and industrialized civilization that marked his masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth.

Perlman, too, is having more fun than he did in the first film. He slips comfortably into Hellboy's grumpy mannerisms and feels quite at home with the rambunctious iconoclasm of the script. Hellboy II engages in further meditation on his outsider status, joined by pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), man-fish Friday Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), and newcomer John Krauss (John Alexander, James Dodd and the voice of Seth MacFarlane) who appears as ectoplasmic smoke contained in a 19th-century diver's suit. Though it says nothing that Bryan Singer's X-Men films didn't say more eloquently, del Toro still brings some grace to their fundamental dilemma as they endure the scorn of the very people they hope to save. A lovely little subplot entails Sapien's blossoming relationship with a turncoat elven princess (Anna Walton) and Hellboy's up-and-down spats with girlfriend Liz hold their share of appeal too. The scene where he and Sapien drunkenly bemoan their romantic woes to the strains of Barry Manilow is a piece of near-genius, reflecting the deep affection del Toro continues to hold for these lovable misfits.

But despite all that, Hellboy II still can't overcome the same fatal flaws which doomed its predecessor. In the simplest terms, it's a mess. Much of its world has been thrown together haphazardly, with elements added because they seem cool at first glance, not because they fit in with the proceedings in any appreciable way. Stephen Scott's admittedly gorgeous production design still lacks the spark to give it life, leaving us with yet another series of hollow sets and flashy costumes in search of a purpose. Snippets of a faerie world hidden within our own -- including a "troll market" underneath the Brooklyn Bridge -- convey unbridled clutter rather than genuine enchantment, and as the film wears on, the uneasy sense of effects for the sake of effects starts to weigh upon its better elements. (Krauss, in particular, feels like the sort of add-on usually reserved for a franchise death-rattle.) It all shambles towards us in an ungainly heap, devoid of the elegance which marks Del Toro's best work and unable to muster enough cohesion to maintain proper levels of excitement.

Instead, Hellboy II settles back into a business-as-usual formula, using imagery devoid of context and noisy gestures in the place of actual narrative. It has a few assets to offset that -- a cast supremely at ease in make-up and latex, some nice fight choreography, and flashes of humor unseen in most del Toro films -- but the results are still too misshapen to pull us into this universe. Were someone else at the helm, it might have been easier to overlook the flaws. But this director has shown us how good he can be, and with a character he adores as much as this one, he should have more to show for it than the mixed bag on display here. Hellboy II contains the seeds for a third film, of course, and I'm sure the principles would love to come back once again. But nothing here conveys any sense of anticipation at such a prospect... unforgivable for artists with as much talent as they.

Review published 07.10.2008.

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