HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY jj

2008, PG-13, 110 mins.

Hellboy: Ron Perlman / Liz Sherman: Selma Blair / Abe Sapien/Chamberlain/Angel of Death: Doug Jones / Johann Krauss (voice): Seth MacFarlane / Krauss: John Alexander/James Dodd / Princess Nuala: Anna Walton / Prince Nuada: Luke Gross / Tom Manning: Jeffrey Tambor

Directed by Guillermo del Toro / Written by del Toro and Mike Mignola, based on his comic book.

I think that the most sincere thing I will say about HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is thatÖwell...I went into it with the most open of minds.  

Leaving the theatre, I was nevertheless left in a state of chronic bewilderment.  The HELLBOY universe, as far as comic books go, is one of the oddest and most abnormal Iíve ever encountered, and Iíve seen some weird films.  I think that, when all is said and done, I donít find myself lamenting about the fact that the HELLBOY films are strange; that alone is not my soul objection.  Rather, 2004ís HELLBOY and now this sequel just donít seem to know how to harness and mold their strangeness into one cohesive and satisfying package. 

I have cruised through the original Dark Horse comics by Mike Mignola, whose gothic style and startlingly simplistic play with bold lines and deep shadow have always made his work stand proudly apart.  The HELLBOY comics, with their supernatural themes and dark moods, are so harmoniously tailored for Mignolaís obvious skills that they were simple pleasures to just flip through and drink in the eye candy.  

I think thatís the most apt way of describing the feeling of sitting through both the first HELLBOY film and now its follow-up.  They are absolute masterpieces of bravura costume design, cutting edge live action and CGI creature effects, and luscious art direction.  Both films were co-written and directed by Oscar winning Mexican filmmaker, Guillermo de Toro, who can easily be characterized as an innovative cinematic craftsman who seems completely unhinged by any mortal limits of wacky imagination.   His films, from the two HELLBOYS to his most critically lauded effort, 2006ís beautifully sumptuous, but dramatically problematic, PANíS LABYRINTH, were unapologetic parades of astonishing creative energy.  De Toro, much like George Lucas and Peter Jackson, is a real master of transporting viewers with visual enthusiasm:  His films have so much eye-popping detail to take in (seeing them once almost is not enough).  He blends the fantastical and the frightening - usually in equal dosages - and his films are unqualified feats of majestic and affluent imagery.  From a pure auditory-visual perspective, HELLBOY II is a major achievement in the realm of spectacular, escapist fantasy.  Bar none.

Yet, no matter how investment I had in the images that graced the screen in HELLBOY II, I found myself oddly pulling away from its underlining story and its tonal approach to the material.  Yes, the film is magnificent to look at, and de Toro certainly does great justice to the look and feel of Mignolaís original comic pages, but the HELLBOY films are ones that seem bereft of compelling stories and, most importantly, a cohesively established mood throughout.  De Toro and company seem in love with envisioning the world of a secret FBI agent that happens to be a demon, but HELLBOY II and its antecedent donít seem to know whether to play things for satiric laughs, genre mocking parody, high octane action, or gothic horror.   There is a bizarre, almost frustrating, disharmony to these films, which prohibits them from being wholly satisfying.  Oftentimes, de Toro throws so much at the screen that you suspect he does not no when enough is enough.

HELLBOY II picks up with where the first one left off.  The film once again continues the story of its title character (an odd name, considering that he is several decades away from being a boy) and his very odd group of patriotic beings that work for a super top-secret underground governmental agency.  Despite his otherwise fierce combative nature and his fiery toughness, "Big Red" is actually just a big, muscle pound teddy bear.  He likes kittens, old movies, Cuban cigars, and certainly has a soft spot for his girlfriend and fellow agent member, Liz (Selma Blair), a human that has special abilities of her own: she can turn herself on fire (question: why do her clothes not instantly burn to a crisp whenever she activates her talents?).  Much of the film (perhaps a bit too much) is padded down with their fairly pedestrian, paint-by-numbers relationship spats.  However, their fights are quite large in scale, seeing as she can reduce rooms to ash and that he is essentially impervious to everything. 

Hellboy and Lizís colleagues include Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a big walking fish that is a cool and effective foil to Hellboy, and newcomer Johann Kraus (voiced by FAMILY GUY creator, Seth MacFarlane), who is essentially one big gas cloud housed inside a mechanical suit.  Their outfit is overseen by the rigidly by-the-books chief, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, a very funny screen comedian, terribly underused here).  His soul purpose is to ensure that this very supernatural group is not made public and to keep Hellboy and company under wraps, which is made difficult considering that Red has a penchant for breaking rules with his smart-ass demeanor and his rule-breaking philosophy of life. 

Alas, there is a story to HELLBOY II, albeit a shaky and somewhat disengaging one.  We learn (during a flashback montage) that there has always been an ancient battle between humans and mythical creatures on Earth.  At one point in the past a special crown was created that gave any wearer of royal blood control of an unstoppable mechanical army, The Golden Army, or ď70 times 70Ē army (why not just call them the 4900 army?).  It appears that this 4900 army nearly decimated all humankind, so much so that the King of the Elves, Balor, decided to set up a truce: humans get the cities and the creatures get the forests.  The Kingís son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) does not share his dadís worldview.  At one point itís revealed that the crown of control was broken into three pieces and that all would need to be put together to reclaim the Golden Army.  Being the fanatical type, the Prince brutally kills his father in his attempts to find all of the pieces.  Unfortunately for him, the Princeís sister, Nuala (Anna Walton) steadfastly opposes her brother and teams up with Hellboyís misfits to stop her maniacal sibling once and for all. 

The best thing about HELLBOY II, as stated, is its aesthetic sheen.  Several scenes involving trolls, gnomes, angels, elves, hundred foot tall plant creatures, a massive, underground hellish caverns and lost cities, are impressive in scope and detail.  The creature shop assisting de Toro includes the geniuses at Spectral Motion and Filmefex contributed to makeup and prosthetics.  Whatís on display here is an incredible marriage of the real and synthetic:  Many directors are slavish to lazy CGI to augment scenes, but del Torro is too cunning and adept to fall victem to computer technology.  The film does rely on CGI make-believe, but there are moments in the film where the monsters are a wonderful hybrid between makeup, props, and pixel-effects.  This gives HELLBOY II a very atypical organic feel to the proceedings:  del Toroís creatures breathe with more life and substance because of these choices. 

The film has one great scene Ė which is a clear and obvious echo and homage to the famous cantina sequence in the first STAR WARS Ė where Hellboy and his crazy entourage enter a Troll Market, and enormous merchant city hidden under, of all places, the Brooklyn Bridge.  Like the exotic aliens that permeated the space bar in Lucasí world, del Toroís merchant center here is a tour de force of unhinged originality and eye-popping wonderment.  Detail pours out of every inch of the frame during this montage: I love it when fantasy films like this are so generous with portraying their worlds.  

Yet, I only wish that something more memorable happened in del Toroís fascinating film universe.  The story to HELLBOY II lacks engagement: there are too many bombastic action sequences, too many repetitive fight montages (all drenched with yet another tedious, overkilled music score by Danny Elfman).  The villain here in the form of the prince never germinates with any reasonable menace or gusto.  Hellboy himself is an interesting and unforgettable creation, but is dramatically limiting.  Sans one crucial moment in the film, Hellboy is so indestructible so often that you never gain a sense of tension of impending danger to the story.  Ron Pearlman is such a unhinged hoot here, once again playing Hellboy as a laconically goofy, acid tongued, and tough as nails demonic hero, but I just wish that he was given more to do here than just punch, kick, shoot at monsters and argue with his girlfriend. 

And, just as was the case with HELLBOY I, this filmís tone is woefully all over the map.  The underlining premise to HELLBOY is fairly preposterous and silly, and the film does generate small chuckles and sly moments of merriment at the expense of the heroesí abnormalities (one scene, which involves Abe and Hellboy engaging in a drunken karaoke of a Barry Manilow jingle, is spirited), and the film has its heart in the right place with its forthright idiocy.  However, too much of HELLBOY takes itself too seriously and too much of it plays things for broad laughs worthy of a spoof.  As I watched HELLBOY I and II I was reminded of the first MEN IN BLACK film, which also had a story involving secret agents battling against otherworldly enemies.  That film played ostensibly for laughs, and I think that if the HELLBOY series was able to decide on one correct note to play on, then the whole package would be that much more inviting. 

Not to worry, though.  Del Toro is simply too visionary and has a painterly vision of such confidence, authority, and panache to make a bad film.  HELLBOY II is certainly a wholehearted success as a kinetic and flamboyantly ingenious visual odyssey.  The film is like a Heironymus Bosch painting crossed with something out of Mad Magazine.  I applaud de Toro as a filmmaker who hurtles himself into sequences of such haunting and spell binding beauty, but itís a decided shame that the vitality of the HELLBOY world is marred by limp storytelling and a case of multiple personality disorder.  All of this builds to the unavoidable: HELLBOY II is a bold and stunning achievement and, paradoxically, a letdown all the same.

Ah, crap.

  H O M E