Catching Up With: Hellboy II: The Golden Army – 2008

The biggest problem with Guillermo Del Toro’s first “Hellboy” movie, which chronicles the world-saving adventures of a blood-red, de-horned demon behemoth played by Ron Perlman who protects the world he is destined to destroy, was that for all of the craziness surrounding the character and the director’s imagination, there was too much convention, typified by Rupert Evans’ dull FBI agent and the lifeless love triangle involving the human flamethrower Liz (Selma Blair).

Thankfully “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” the sequel that came four years later, jettisons anything resembling conventional or rudimentary. In fact, this film makes it’s already lively predecessor look like “My Dinner with Andre.” This sequel is bigger in scope, funnier, weirder and just more audacious in its execution when compared to other comic book movies. More often than not this feels less like a movie and more like a 120-minute excursion into Guillermo Del Toro’s extraordinarily vivid imagination.

“The Golden Army” finds the FBI-commissioned team dedicated to fighting the paranormal, still consisting of Hellboy, the intelligent fish-man psychic Abe Sapien (once again played by Doug Jones, who also replaces David Hyde Pierce on vocal duties) and the fire-wielding, emotionally troubled Liz (Selma Blair, more comfortable but still an uneven performance), finding it more difficult to keep their identities a secret. This problem comes to a head after an attack on a New York museum that results in mass destruction and the reveal of Hellboy and company to the world. But the compromise of their team’s identity is nothing compared to the plans of one Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) the elvish Albino offspring of Marilyn Manson, who is looking for the missing pieces that make up a crown that will summon the Golden Army, mechanical beasts that will take back the world for mystical creatures, who aren’t pleased about being banished to forests. Oh, and the also have to contend with their new handler, Johann Krauss, who suffers from the unfortunate afflictions of being turned into vapor and being voiced by Seth MacFarlane.

Although Nuada is a more interesting villain than Rasputin was in the first movie, his plan is mere structure for Del Toro, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and his design team to unleash every insane visual idea they’ve ever had. We get more of a look at the beasts that invade our world, and they are a wonder to behold. There is no CGI here, practical costumes and effects bring these sometimes funny sometimes horrifying but always fascinating monsters to life. The scene in an underground “troll market” is packed to the breaking point with these beasts. In fact, the entire movie is packed to the breaking point with everything that Del Toro, who wrote the script with Mike Mignola (who created the original comic book) wanted to throw into the original but was sidetracked by the utterly pointless John Meyers subplot (he was sent to Antarctica in this one, thank God for small favors). This film is definitely lighter in tone, but it’s the greater piece of cinematic execution. The characters are given more to do (Perlman is still a natural as the titular character), we learn more about the world they do battle with, and we get more set pieces, which are executed with almost balletic precision. The epic final confrontation between Hellboy’s team and the Golden Army is truly spectacular, with swords, robots, and gunfire all thrown into a phantasmagorical maelstrom; that same energy that powered the first movie feels like its been pumped with steroids.

This movie feels more like a fusion of Mignola’s original and Del Toro’s obsessions than the first movie, diving into the deep end with a set-piece involving a massive tree-demon thing that chases Hellboy through New York City while he carries a baby, and a hilarious scene where Abe and Hellboy drown their sorrows in booze and Barry Manilow, and then must do battle with Nuada in their own home.

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army” doesn’t have the emotional or allegorical heft of his greatest works like “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but in a way this film is his “Goodfellas”: an ecstatic showpiece for all of his skills and obsessions; it’s the rare sequel that isn’t designed for inflated box office grosses: it was created to inflate the idiosyncrasies of its creators and its hero.

Grade: B+

Advertisements

Catching Up With: Hellboy – 2004

It seems that among the current glut of superhero movies that have dominated American cinema over the last decade, the ones that stand out are the ones with the most personality and were guided from behind the camera by directors with a specific vision and/or an intimate understanding of what these universes/characters bring to the table. You can look at Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies and obviously Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are at the top of the heap, but another movie that stands out among the now predictable odes to empowered people who blow things up real good to stop the crazier super-powered people is “Hellboy,” directed by the crazed genius of macabre Guillermo Del Toro, with his regular personification of the strange and darkly comic Ron Perlman playing the cigar-chomping, kitten-loving, blood red demon who fights to protect a world he will never be fully part of.

According to a prologue that proves the Nazis learned nothing from the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” they along with Rasputin (Karel Roden) tried to open a portal to a dimension to unleash horrible beasts to bring chaos to our realm. Their plan is foiled by their own arrogance, but a baby demon with horns, a tail and a right hand made of stone sneaked through, winding up in the care of paranormal scientist Trever Broom (John Hurt), who would groom this demon into “Hellboy,” ¬†protector of the world from all things supernatural.

Hellboy is part of a team commissioned by the FBI (represented by Jeffrey Tambor), which also consists of Abe Sapien (played in costume by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde Pierce), an intellectual half-man/half-fish, and we find “Red” pining over Liz (Selma Blair), a troubled soul who has the unfortunate tendency to create uncontrollable fires with her mind. And then there is Hellboy himself. He files down his horns to “fit in” but it might be to remove any reminders of his insidious origins. He consumes vats of chili and mountains of pancakes everyday, and he’s frustrated that Broom keeps him cut off from the world he’s supposed to be protecting. Perlman, the great character actor with a mug that looks like the unfinished fifth face of Mount Rushmore, was born for this role. He nails the dry humor, the graceful yet imposing physical presence, the sinister undertones that come with being, you know, hellspawn.

This character, taken from the comic book series by Mike Mignola, fits Del Toro’s auteur sensibilities perfectly. He has blast orchestrating these battles with otherworldly monsters (in this case, ones that look like the spawn of Cerberus and Predator who can resurrect themselves) with twisted glee. It’s funny but tinged with the director’s trademark macabre tendencies. When “Hellboy” is allowed to be strange, and the character is allowed to do this thing and interact with his equally freakish comrades (Rick Baker’s reliably amazing make-up work needs to be mentioned), the movie is a welcome outlier amid the more predictable fare this genre usually traffics in.

Unfortunately, “Hellboy” stumbles when it toes the water of conventionality, which comes in the form of John Meyers (Rupert Evans), the rookie FBI agent who for reasons that are never explained has come to observe Hellboy and the team. This guy is a harbinger of bland, given scene after scene of him gaping in awe at Hellboy’s behavior. Part of the mystique of Hellboy’s character is that even though he’s a demon he acts like a regular human being a lot of the time. Having Evans, who sets a land-speed record in being uninteresting, remark on everything this character does is counterproductive to what makes him interesting. This movie thrives on its own fervent imagination, so having Meyers play such a substantial role feels unnecessary, and it stalls the narrative momentum whenever he is on-screen. It doesn’t help that a love triangle forms with him, Hellboy and Liz (Blair is a blank slate as well) that doesn’t work at all, shuffling even more cliches into this film’s stacked deck (Evans is so wooden that a relationship with a woman who can create fire would put a dent in his life expectancy). Also, the villains are straight out of Eastern European central casting, not giving nearly enough menace to justify their threat in this movie.

But these shortcomings don’t sink “Hellboy.” Perlman is so compelling as this character and Del Toro adds more than enough style and verve to compensate. His cinematographer Guillermo Navarro creates some amazing imagery, using Hellboy’s bright red skin as a contrast to snowy Russian fortresses, flame-consumed landscapes, etc. “Hellboy” the movie works in the same way it’s protagonist does: on its own terms, unshackled by the rules, letting its demon flag fly.

Grade: B+