A decade ago there were very, very few comic book adaptations in theaters. Aside from the first Batman and Superman franchises there were almost none at all. Boy have things changed. Now one can count on a good 2-3 movies a year based on iconic comic book characters and a few more obscure graphic novel adaptations for good measure. One trend that emerged from this trend of comic book movies was that the first sequel of each series seemed to be the best. Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2 were both significantly better than the movies they preceded. These were of course followed by disappointing third installments, but the second movies in both series were bigger, better, and more confident then the originals without going over the top. Another great example of this was the Guillermo Del Toro directed Blade II, a film that did have major flaws but was a much-improved experience over Stephen Norington’s original. Del Toro has also managed to make a superior sequel to his own comic book franchise, Hellboy.
This installment picks up not too long after the original and Hellboy (Ron Pearlman) is still working in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense with Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and his girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Hellboy’s relationship with Liz is full fledged this time, but it’s on rocky terrain. Hellboy is not the easiest person to live with and Liz is near her wits end. Meanwhile, in a subterranean world never discovered by man, an evil albino elf guy named Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) is planning to overthrow mankind and reclaim the earth for inhuman kind, but in order to do this he must collect three pieces of a broken crown that will unleash an invincible mechanical army to do his bidding. Nuada decides to retrieve the first piece of the crown by waging a full on attack on a high-end auction being conducted in downtown Manhattan. Hellboy and the Bureau move in to intervene, but in the process Hellboy falls out of the building onto a crowded street, thus revealing the Bureau to the world, giving Hellboy the freedom he’s always wanted, but perhaps the world isn’t ready for him. Hellboy must deal with this, and more immediately he must stop Prince Nuada from enacting his evil plan.
I didn’t really like the first Hellboy, but I’ve warmed to it over time. Guillermo Del Toro clearly gives a damn about the comic books he’s adapting, which is a refreshing sentiment, but it gave the series a certain cartoonishness that took some getting used to. While most of these superhero type movies mix comic book storylines with science fiction, Hellboy mixes superhero arcs with the fantasy genre. This wasn’t as easy to tell in the first movie, but what Del Toro is trying to do is a lot clearer in this installment. Hopefully with this in mind the plot summery above seem a little less strange, because it isn’t nearly as weird as it sounds on paper, though there are definitely awkward elements.
A lot has changed fro the original film. The long-suffering Bureau chief, Tom Manning (Jeffery Tambor), is still here. But John Myers, the junior agent used to introduce the audience to the bureau in the original, has been unceremoniously cut from the story. As I stated before, there is a much clearer attachment to the fantasy genre here than the previous movie, which had more of a horror vibe. This perhaps fits in with the direction of Del Toro’s other projects coming off of Pan’s Labyrinth and going into his next project, The Hobbit. This allows Del Toro’s imagination to run wild, but there are some downsides. The setup requires a fairly convoluted mythology that is introduced in a fairly long CGI animated prologue. It also requires the audience to accept that there is an extremely elaborate fantasy universe that’s been living among the regular world while rarely being spotted.
What really sets the movie apart from the other comic book franchises it’s competing with is Del Toro’s genuine creativity and visionary designs that are on display throughout the film. Del Toro has a deep love for monster movies and he fills his movies with fantastically designed creatures. With this movie Del Toro has turned the monster quotient up to eleven. Each new creature Hellboy faces in this movie is stranger and cooler looking than the last. This is excellent visual filmmaking in the context of a fun Hollywood action movie. Occasionally though, it is a little too much of a good thing. Pan’s Labyrinth seemed to do a great job with only three monsters, here we must get at least ten if not more. Almost every one of them is as meticulously designed as anything we saw in Pan’s Labyrinth, but occasionally the film seems a bit crowded. There’s a sense of self indulgence in just how many monsters Del Toro has filled this movie with and a few of them might have been better off saved for a later movie.
The visual effects used to put these meticulously crafted monsters up on screen are also very good. One of the best things about Dell Toro’s work is that he never uses CGI as a crutch, while still using it well when it’s necessary. All too often directors will jump computer-animated effects automatically, even for jobs that physical effects are better suited for. Del Toro is not one of these filmmakers, he always knows when to use makeup or practical effects to get the job done. There are only two or three monsters in Hellboy II that are entirely CGI creations, and they’re all things that undeniably needed CGI to be accomplished. I’m not a total CGIiphobe but I love what physical effects bring with them to the screen and it’s nice to see a filmmaker who also values this kind of effects work.
The main villain, Prince Nuada, is a good character on paper and his combat abilities add greatly to the film’s action scenes, but from a visual design standpoint he’s a weak link. He’s basically just an albino dude with long hair, that’s not overly impressive and isn’t up to the creative standards Del Toro has set for himself. The character design reminded me of the Reevers from the television show “Stargate: Atlantis,” and a number of other Albino villains. In another movie this would have been a passable design, but here he’s completely upstaged by most of his henchmen and by the heroes.
The action sequences are also really good here. The first movie had a few decent fight scenes but it lacked some truly visceral action scenes. A big part of this was that Hellboy himself is sort of a bulky thuggish type, not unlike the Incredible Hulk or The Thing from the Fantastic Four. He wasn’t very prone to acrobatics and the fights in the first one (mainly against equally large squid monsters) were comic book like brawls that relied more on brute force than combat skills. Here though they made the wise choice to make the villain more of an a martial artist type and many of the fights are faster, more choreographed affairs along the line of what we saw in Blade II. That isn’t to say this is as consistently violent as that bloody opus, but it is a step up from what we say in the first Hellboy.
Of course the joy to be found in Hellboy II isn’t all in the special effects and action. The film has a very complete, very witty script. I could have lived without the elaborate mythology behind the story, but I’ll take a creative if slightly convoluted setup any day over another cookie cutter comic book story like Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. The story also has attempts at some genuine depth, even if it’s not particularly subtle. I think particularly about the romance between Hellboy and Liz, which Del Toro had the courage to look at very seriously. This is one of the strangest couplings one is likely to ever see, but at points film has more to say about the nature of love than most of the generic romantic comedies that come out. Of course the script occasionally bites off a little more than it chews, like when it introduces the concept of how the public reacts to Hellboy once he’s revealed, but never really follows up on this.
One element of the script that greatly differentiates it from the first installment is that there is a very noticeable increase in the amount of comic relief on display here. The original Hellboy never took itself too seriously, but this sequel has even more comedy in it. There are a whole lot of very comic sequences here like one portion where Hellboy and Abe go on a beer binge. Make no mistake, most if not all of these comedic sequences do work, they’re almost all funny, none of them seem completely out of place, and none of them are distractions. The problem with them isn’t really quality, but rather quantity. The whole point of including comic relief is to release the tension that’s been built at appropriate moments. There’s so much comedy here that the genuine tension has trouble getting built, it’s “relieved” too early, it would have done the film well to cut some of these scenes.
Del Toro’s decision to cast Ron Pearlman as Hellboy was one of the best casting decisions he could have made for the original movie. He had the size, the gruffness, and the humor that Hellboy needed and he’s just as good here. Doug Jones is also back as Abe Sapien and he’s doing the voice work for the character now as well. I initially thought this would be a problem if only because of continuity, but I didn’t miss David Hyde Pierce one bit. Abe Sapien also has a lot more to do here, I thought he was somewhat wasted in the first film, but he feels like a full fledged character here and Doug Jones makes him come to life effectively. Speaking of voice acting, Seth MacFarlane does the voice of a new character here, and his work is really laugh out loud hilarious here. But the actor who really deserves a standing ovation is Selma Blair, who I thought was really under-appreciated in the first Hellboy. I really like the character Blair created in that first film, she doesn’t have as much to do here but I still really like what she’s doing.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army has a handful of problems, but they shouldn’t be overstated and they’re far overshadowed by the movie’s positive aspects. Del Toro’s imaginative creature creations alone are worth the price of admission and beyond the effects this is a very fun very well made summer movie. This is great escapism and I had a load of fun watching it.