Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review - Hellboy II: The Golden Army

To watch
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is to overdose on imagination. The imagination, that is, of Guillermo del Toro, which is surely among the most fertile and beguiling in contemporary cinema. Take the opening prologue, for example. Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt, making a brief but welcome appearance) tells young Hellboy a bedtime story, which mostly consists of the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a picture like this – an ancient war, an uneasy truce, a portentous warning of reprisals – but the story itself is less remarkable than the manner in which del Toro depicts it. Bruttenholm's words are being filtered through the imagination of the young demon-child hearing them, and so we see this great battle being fought entirely by wooden puppets. It's a gorgeous sight, one to immediately strike a chord with the child inside all of us, and throughout Hellboy II, del Toro finds fresh ways to make the screen come alive with fantastical sights.

Hellboy himself is as fantastical a figure as they come, of course. Played once more by Ron Perlman, he's a bright red monster with pared-down horns and a sledgehammer right fist, although his intimidating appearance masks a surprisingly sweet soul, as evidenced by the kittens that roam around his messy quarters. Those quarters are located in the bowels of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD), a covert government agency that Hellboy and his freakishly gifted pals work for. The combustible Liz (Selma Blair) and Hellboy have become an item since the first film, but their relationship has hit a rocky patch when this sequel opens, and Liz is keeping the fact that she's pregnant (the mind boggles!) a secret from her partner. However, she can't keep it hidden from Abe Sapien (played both physically and vocally by Doug Jones), the highly intelligent amphibian who can telepathically know things beyond human comprehension, but who struggles to understand basic emotions. These are the central characters in the action, and one of the most pleasant aspects of
Hellboy II is the way del Toro devotes plenty of attention – at least in the film's first half – to exploring their own dilemmas and conflicts, creating the kind of drama that can't be conjured via the magic of CGI.

There's something of a plot too, but it isn't anywhere near as evolved as Del Toro's visual sense, and at times we can sense the strain as the screenplay creaks under the opulent decoration that it has been adorned with. The story told in that prologue comes back to haunt Hellboy when Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, sadly not wearing bottle tops on his shoes) arrives in modern-day New York to break the truce his father hatched between the worlds of demons and humans. He's after the various segments of a crown that, when united, will grant the wearer complete control over an indestructible golden army that currently lays dormant deep in the earth's bowels. His twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton) gathers up the crown's crucial third segment and flees into the sanctuary of the BPRD, where – in the film's most pleasing development – she becomes Abe Sapien's first ever love interest. Some of my favourite scenes in the picture were the ones that featured Doug Jones as a lovesick Abe, attempting to come to terms with the feelings Nuala stirs in him, and resorting to Barry Manilow songs in his quest for comprehension (a rendition of
Can't Smile Without You is a definite comic highlight).

Abe isn't the only character struggling with his emotions, as Hellboy is suffering from his own identity crisis, something that seems to be
de rigeur for superhero sequels these days. His moment of truth comes when he finally reveals himself to the American public and doesn't quite get the hero's welcome he was anticipating, but I was disappointed with how little del Toro actually did with this strand of the narrative. Essentially, it boils down to one scene, when Hellboy – in the midst of battling an enormous escapee from the Little Shop of Horrors – is invited by Nuada to question his place in the world. Does he belong with the humans – as a freak, an outsider – or is his place with the demons, where he can be a king? This dilemma isn't explored much beyond that scene, though, and soon Hellboy is back kicking monstrous ass.

The action sequences in
Hellboy II are much tighter and sharper than they were in the first picture, and while the sequence outlined above is a standout, special mention must go to the encounter with the swarm of tiny "Tooth Fairies", whose method of extracting teeth is far more disturbing than their benign name suggests. One can see the influence of Pan's Labyrinth in their design, and the shadow of that great film looms over other areas of Hellboy II, with del Toro clearly revelling in a greater freedom to paint the screen with his stunning images. It's a shame that the film stops being quite so explosively imaginative in its second half (shortly after the Manilow duet in fact), and begins adhering more to a shop-worn formula. The climactic sequences are disjointed and hampered by shoddy plotting, and the final showdown is let down by both Nuada's lack of real menace, and the fact that del Toro leaves Abe and Liz standing around like dummies while Hellboy and new colleague Johann Krauss (voiced by a German-accented Seth McFarlane) take on the golden army.

Hellboy II is not a perfect film, then, but I liked it more than the first, which always felt unusually flat to me, and I think there's still more to come from this franchise. Hellboy remains a great character, beautifully captured by Ron Perlman's cranky cynicism, and the world del Toro creates around him is stunning to behold. Watch the "troll market" sequence here and marvel at the stunning detail and imagination packed into every corner of the set – what I really want to see is a Hellboy film in which the story matches that kind of showmanship, where the plot is ambitious enough to complement the film's cinematography and art direction. Hellboy II loses its magic whenever it starts following the rules, it begins to feel like just another big-budget blockbuster, and del Toro's vision is too weird and special to suffer that fate. I'd love to see a third Hellboy film, but one hopes the director will finally go all the way for that one, to give these characters the send-off they deserve, and to fully envelop us in his beautifully twisted dreams.