In actual fact, folks, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is, thankfully, anything but.
Commencing with a wonderfully nostalgic moment of bedtime storytelling as John Hurt's Prof. Broom regales a wide-eyed and curious 11-year old Hellboy with a tale of Faerie conflict from centuries before - a conflict that director Guillermo Del Toro furnishes with vintage puppetry to evoke the myth-loving imagination of the young demon. But this yuletide-set introduction also serves another purpose, one that posits the framework of the story to come. Broom's tale is no mere yarn, it is a prophecy of what is to come should the displaced Elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) ever manage to regain the portentous pieces of a mystic crown and, thus, activate the fearsome Golden Army, an ancient mechanoid battalion of burnished bruisers with whom he could take over the world of Man and assume his rightful place as ruler of our dominion. Sweet dreams, little Hellboy.
Although the story, this time, veers even closer in spirit to the comic-books of Mignola - the Realm of Faerie, a vital rendezvous at the enchanted Giant's Causeway, the inclusion of the ectoplasmic special agent, Johann Krauss - the film, like its predecessor, offers us a Hellboy and a BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence) that are still very much removed from the original milieu. Hellboy, under the steam of the great Ron Perlman is still very much a hangdog, misguided, emotionally confused dark soul, his perpetual “outsider” status still the bane of his life and his devotion to firebug-cutie Liz Sherman (the equally great Selma Blair) still causing him endless frustrations even though the two of them are now a definite hot item. Jeffrey Tambor's returning Bureau chief, Manning, is still fighting the inevitable by trying to keep his unusual employees under wraps - which is tantamount to that fairground game of batting the heads that pop-up in front of you - and forever exasperated at his Big Red prize-fighter's antics and forlorn eagerness for societal acceptance. In fact, everything is pretty much business as usual which, for a sequel in this day and age of increased spectacle demolishing much-cherished original chemistry - see Mummy 3 (or, if you've any love for what went before it, don't) is actually quite rewarding.
“Mein Gott! Are you done? Step aside ... you are a disgrace!”
Perlman's fixation with oddball characters goes much deeper than mere type-casting. His unusual build and looks certainly give him a shoe-in for such roles, but it is his uncanny ability to give these parts warmth, wit, compassion and three-dimensionality that makes him such a critical lynchpin. A six-foot, horned demon with a tail and a colossal right hand made of all-powerful stone, bathed in the very colour scheme of Hell's most intimate sanctum is hardly the first thing you will think of when it comes to visualising the heroic spearhead of a franchise, yet with Perlman gruffly assuming the beast's inner-workings and adapting the freak into a blue-collar underling, not so much ignorant of the importance of his existence as he is embarrassed by it, you have the perfect poster-boy for reluctant rat-racers the world over. I've always been a fan of Ron Perlman - from his Beauty And The Beast TV days and his tragic role in the great gothic detective yarn The Name Of The Rose - and, for the life of me, I cannot imagine anybody else portraying Hellboy. That was, and still is, immaculate casting. First time around, he managed to make the most defiantly un-filmable character completely sympathetic and believable. Here, his live-action deviation from the printed page most assuredly makes him the most enjoyable and vibrantly credible incarnation you could ever have. I will shy away from saying that his is the definitive Hellboy, though, for I have too much love for the glib Red Monkey of the books.
“There have been over seventy deaths reported. There are no survivors.”
“Same story here, babe.”
“Don't call me "babe."
“Abe! I said Abe!”
In a genre that either picks its women for their athletic allure, their simple, pouting beauty or their sheer star power, it was an extremely refreshing move to have engaged the glum goth-queen Selma Blair as the fiery-tempered babe on Hellboy's stone arm. I loved her in the first film and totally believed in her reluctant relationship with the satanic saviour. Here, despite a plot development that, on the face of it, goes in a distinctly left-field direction from anything that Mignola wrote but, in actual fact, provides a really groovy new slant on the central dynamic, she is just as good. Her deadpan sarcasm is a gift and the manner in which she can turn on the emotion in the blink of a dark eye is quite affecting. With indie-credentials up-the-wazoo-and-back, Blair brings a tremendous amount of freaky soul to the movie. I may wish that she was, perhaps, allowed to be even more grumblingly melancholic but I'm happy with the way things are shaping up for her and Big Red. Love the new hairstyle, too.
“If you destroy it, the world will never see its kind again...You have more in common with us than with them.”
But the great news for fans of the books is that this time Abe Sapien gets far more to do and we get the chance to peel back his gills and get to know what makes the amphibian-intellectual tick. For instance, his love of rotten eggs pales considerably when his cold, watery heart finds reason to beat a little faster once he meets the Elf Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) and suddenly all the esoteric knowledge in the world goes out the window. Finally voiced by creature-evoker extraordinaire and Del Toro-regular, Doug Jones, Abe's valiant fish-man becomes a fully fledged character in his own right and not just a colourful aside to the main attraction. In the first Hellboy, when trapped underwater and at the mercy of a couple of submerged Sammael-creatures, a tiny moment of his genuine fear was evinced by the startling facial effects and Jones' ability to convey credible emotion from within it. This outing sees Abe evince a whole gamut of feelings and to become genuinely smitten by both the intellect and wisdom that Nuala extols and also by some raw sensations that he has never felt before. This approach to love and emotion in a pure, FX-ridden fantasy romp is still rare and, without labouring the issue, Del Toro is incredibly adept at bringing such tenderness to the fore without them clogging-up the story with unnecessary saccharine. A wonderful segment sees both Abe and the always-mystified Hellboy engage in a girl-trouble beer-bash that reduces them both to maudlin singsong, our solid empathy with them a terrific trick of Del Toro's visual incongruity of their utter physical bizarreness being transcended simply by the immediate commonality of such a situation of two guys crying into their ale. “My body's a temple,” insists Abe, at first refusing a drink. “No,” replies Big Red, “it's an amusement park.” The good-natured banter and devolution into to pure comedy is a blessed angle of the movie series so far. In other hands, the Hellboy films would possibly “up” the darkness at the cost of the humanity that these dimensional outcasts so crave. Jones, it should be said, also steps into the wacky prosthetics of the awesome Angel Of Death - a bone and feather concoction with a withered stone face that somehow calls to mind Bruce Spence's macabre Mouth Of Sauron from Return Of The King - and box-faced Elf courtier, Chamberlain, adding so many unique and otherworldly incarnations to his roster that Andy Serkis' once prestigious novelty of playing both Gollum and King Kong now makes him seem like a bit of an underachiever.
“You must remain foc-yoosed at all times!”
"Foc-yoosed? You know, with that accent, I wouldn't use that word.”
Family Guy's Seth McFarlane must have relished his Germanic enunciation of the above quote as Johann Krauss sets about upsetting the applecart at the BPRD and treading on Hellboy's cloven hooves. The addition of one of the books' most avant-garde characters is a terrific step in the right direction, meaning that we may even get to see the appearance of Roger, the morose homunculus at some point. McFarlane's fantastic voice is excellently employed to bring the assertive, officious gas-bag - his body has been reduced to ectoplasmic vapour and now resides in a deep-sea style boiler-suit - to arrogant, Teutonic life. And you've got to love the hugely OTT signature tune of surging Germanic pride that heralds his arrival.
Del Toro's visionary flair is very much in evidence. The film's centre-stage showpiece is surely the Troll Market sequence, which parades a wonderful gathering of the bizarre, the amusing and the utterly grotesque. Repeated viewings will bring out even more innovative creature designs, but keep an eye out for the beast playing some unearthly bagpipe set-up that is actually the modified corpse of a poor smaller creature. The gaiety and apparent casualness of this montage of prosthetics and CG is what makes the sequence work so well. Del Toro isn't thrusting the camera into the lumpy, bug-eyed face of each creation and shouting “Hey, look what we made here!” he lets the cavalcade simply unfold around us as we follow our heroes through the teeming smorgasbord of ogres, trolls, pixies and Del Toro's cherished cephalopods. Hats off though, to the outrageously daft “Cathedral Head” - simply because this temple-bonced oddity couldn't possibly keep a hat on!
“All these things do is eat, and eat, then poop, then eat again. But they do usually go after the teeth first. Hence, tooth fairies."
“And I bet you they don't leave money, either.”
John Alexander as the trolley-mobile goblin is a design and a concept that fits right in with Mignola, intermingling ethereal wit with a hint of menace and workaday practicality. And the horde of tooth-fairies - Third Century, Black Forest variety - are the perfect combination of innocence and utter ferocity, their seemingly delicate frame transforming, in a flashpoint, to a winged, fanged and voracious beastie that looks like something H. R Giger would dream up in a pastoral phase. The film is full of such turn-on-a-dime twists and about-faces, the atmosphere one of undeniable spectral threat, but still energised by a rich vein of comedy. The influence of Tex Avery and Hanna Barbera is also in evidence when Hellboy's clumsy temper-tantrum results in Johann Krauss bringing him down a peg or two via a bombardment of locker-doors - one particularly clanging impact leaving Big Red's face imprinted on the metal. “See? Your temper makes you sloppy,” insists the smug vapour-head. Their rivalry is a brisk retaliation to the relationship between Hellboy and Abe, Krauss becoming the trespasser on sacred ground and, adroitly enough, shaking things up a bit. It is actually only after you've seen the film that you realise that you have hardly even seen a human face at all throughout it. The more conventional members of the BPRD, like the red-jerseyed Star Trek security men, ultimately end up as monster-fodder, yet the likes of Rupert Evans, whose role last time around was to act as an audience conduit into this crazy world, is, ironically, not at all missed.
“Kill me and tear my eyes and rip my insides and my legs and my tongue - but I will never open that door!”
The monstrous Mr. Wink, right-hand-ogre to the vengeful Prince Nuada, makes for a more than impressive nemesis for Hellboy. Fighting fire with fire in that his own arm can extend into a vicious mace, his punishing duel with our crimson hero is a prime-time tussle, furious and devastating. Nuada, himself, is a somewhat strange villain, though. Unlike conventional genre fare, he is nowhere near the simplistic evil that you would expect, in fact, many may find the lack of genuine threat slightly dissatisfying, but this is all part of the warped observation that, in Hellboy's world of immortal grey motivation, nobody and nothing is that black and white. Whilst Nuada is more than capable with his swords-elf-ship, slicing and dicing quite merrily, he is most definitely not a callous and unsympathetic soul. You could argue that Luke Goss is merely reprising his distanced vampire-son from Del Toro's own Blade II but, as similar as the role is, he imbues it with enough noble anger and desire to thoroughly extinguish all memories of his time in Bros. A couple of Matrix-like moves do stick out like a sore thumb, though.
Typical of this “no right, no wrong” stance is the splendid battle with the Last Elemental that is such a great scene that only Del Toro - with a little help from score composer Danny Elfman (see separate soundtrack review) - could turn such a pulverising melee into a thing of ethereal and moving beauty. The homage to John Woo's Hardboiled has been promoted a little too heavily though. Personally, I feel that the set-piece is a neat evolution from Hellboy's saving of the cats from the first film during a skirmish with Sammael. Had the precariously-clutched baby peed down Big Red's leg I'd be singing from the same hymn-sheet, of course. But there is poetry to this scene, thematic as well as visual, that ladles deeper resonance upon the whole scenario, proving once again that comic-book adaptations can offer so much more than mere pop-art stimulation. Perhaps Del Toro's skill for swapping from personal to populist projects is beginning to overlap as, here, he manages to bring both commendable facets together with considerable dexterity.
“It is for you to decide. It is all the same to me, my heart is filled with dust and sand. But you should know, it is his destiny to bring about the destruction of the Earth...not now, not tomorrow but soon enough. Knowing that, you still want him to live?”
of course, Hellboy II is also all about fun, and who can deny the irresistible challenge thrown down by the Golden Army, itself? Part homage to Harryhausen, part videogame smash 'em-up, the metal-meets-brawn smackdown is justifiably cathartic. Formulaic, yes, but a great clank 'n' clobber finale, just the same.
So, if you want to continue the wild comic-book vibe post-The Dark Knight, Hellboy II hits all the right notes, albeit with a lighter, defter touch. It takes screwball characters and simply bounces them from one cosmic set-piece to another, yet never forgets to lace things together with the necessary charm and emotion. If you liked the first film, then it is impossible not to like this one just a little bit more. But if you didn't, then all the monsters in this and many other worlds under the guiding hand of today's greatest filmic fantasist, Guillermo Del Toro, won't convince you of Hellboy II's considerable merits.
A few more details regarding the look and sound of the film can be found in the Verdict.
PictureWith his 1.85:1 image splashed with baroque colour, wild creature designs, fantastical sets and quasi-satanic visuals aplenty, Del Toro's Hellboy II should look absolutely phenomenal on BD. The first movie looked sensational - actually improving the look of Sammael (!) - and, if anything the sequel is even more audaciously lavish. Although every film that comes along should be nothing short of spectacular on Blu-ray, this is exactly the sort of material that literally screams out for home cinema perfection. Intensely colourful - Hellboy's incredible tan and those incandescent eyes, Abe's lustrous blue and black combo, the green of the last Elemental and the sheer variety of the Troll Market and the blistering burnish of the Golden Army - this is pure eye-embracing storytelling.
Yet the film also loves its shadows, providing some terrifically deep swathes of the stuff that provide a depth and solidity to the image that is rich and full of presence. The CG elements mesh convincingly with the live-action - the tooth-fairy onslaught and the Elemental especially - and there should be plenty of opportunity for smaller details and fast-action to be studied and savoured on BD.
SoundWell, I have to say that I wasn't particularly impressed with the sound design all that much. Maybe it was just down to the muddy presentation of the audio, but there was nothing here that stood out for me enough to describe. There is certainly bombast - the tussle with Mr. Wink and the rampage of the last Elemental serving up as a great rehearsal for the big battle at the end - but the delivery of surround and finite detail was indistinct and lacking in integrity. However, I'm positive that come its lossless BD incarnation, this will still end up being audio-heaven. Well, I sincerely hope so, anyway.
VerdictHugely enjoyable, Hellboy II feels like the perfect follow-on to the first movie, insomuch as it doesn't go the stereotypical route of most sequels. Despite having more characters and a little bit more money to play with, the second instalment feels just about the same thematic size and weight, its development and arc more structured than the books but still ensconced in the same fairytale brushstrokes that the filmmaker set down as his template four years before. Del Toro resists the urge to go overboard and, in spite of a couple more action scenes, keeps just as much of a tight lid on things as he did previously. The emotional content - a strong point that was only to be expected - is actually no stronger than before, though perhaps a little more far-reaching. This continual consistency maintains a level of quality and style that duplicates Mignola's storytelling panache in that neither the films nor the comics, so far, have gone ridiculously beyond the constraints of their respective universes. For the sake of comparison, look at how Stephen Sommers' enlarged everything from his first Mummy movie in the overblown and bloated second one. And let's just not mention the third one, eh?
Hellboy II just carries on the supernatural fight with the same level of quirkiness, pathos, humour and character as before, both films fitting together like the gears in the remarkable and eye-catching title sequence.
Although still catering for a particular market, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is highly recommended. A good, solid 8 out of 10, although real fans are welcome to add another point on top if they want.
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