Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

The original 2004 Hellboy is the quintessential example of a third-act problem. It starts off extremely fun, strong, and clever with a wicked backstory about Nazi demon summoning and black magic, flashing back to a 1940s adventure bursting with vibrant visuals and action that evoke an almost Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque feel. It then shifts to the present and builds some neat characters, including of course the great Ron Perlman as Hellboy, terrific use of makeup and prosthetics and CGI to bring the world to life, and what seems like an interesting mystery of occult horror. But then it goes askew and buckles under its own weight - the bad guy's plot, which we knew involved summoning a demon god to earth and killing everyone and assumed that was a base plot that would be elaborated on, turns out to be just that simple and bland. And the climax involves Hellboy and his friends stalking down into a blue and gray-hued enemy dungeon, fighting off CGI monsters, and Hellboy's final, generic battle against a giant CGI tentacle beast - it almost gives off the musky stench of Van Helsing (not THAT bad, but it's reminiscent), and if you've gone from Raiders to Van Helsing in one movie something has certainly gone askew.

But I'm pleased to report that I found Hellboy II: The Golden Army to be a couple ranks up in quality from its predecessor (even if the cruel coincidence of where its release date landed will forever brand it as "That Movie People Went to Go See to Pass Time Until The Dark Knight"). From the word go it has a different flavor than the original, abandoning the dark occult / Lovecraftian horror vibe in favor of a modern high fantasy, with elves, goblins, golems, and forest gods, and it also seems to take itself a hair more lightly (not that the first was heavy or anything, but this even less so), gently undermining nearly every potentially dramatic beat with an off-kilter bit of humor or subtle twist into the comically absurd.

It doesn't fall into the trap of generic action that the first one did - not to say any action beat in this movie innovated, but everything had enough goofy, energetic whimsy and such neat design behind it (more on that momentarily) that I was entertained by pretty much every action scene. There are also epic movie-style spear fights, which you don't see much in the movies (I think the last one I've seen might have been the opening fight in Hero), which I rather enjoyed. And this movie is paced like greased lightning, spacing the start of a new action scene no more than ten minutes after the end of the last from the beginning onwards, interspacing them with special effects showcases, quick, entertaining plot building, and comic bits. Only an ADD-saddled toddler could get anxious for quicker pace in this flick. Other than the legendary B-movie badass Ron Perlman, who returns as Hellboy, the cast isn't too much worth mentioning - Doug Jones inhabits makeup and strange creatures well, Selma Blair's fire-summong superheroine is hot (pun?), and Jeffrey Tambor is deadpan, but this movie doesn't really belong to the actors but solely to Guillermo del Toro and his art team.

Above all else the movie is a visual showcase of del Toro's imagination, something that was hinted at in Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth but explodes off the screen scene-by-scene here, as incredible makeup, prosthetics, graceful, well-implemented CGI, and animatronics are married under wildly clever art design to produce a monumental amount of exotic foreign races and neat creatures. It's clear that creature and world-building and art design is del Toro's great love, and the sheer number of monsters that he and his team designed for this flick is pretty ridiculously awesome; there was one scene where the good guys walk through a "Troll's Market" with dozens of bizarre foreign creatures, most all of them seemingly suits and prosthetics that lack the synthetic quality of being all CGI, that echoed to me the feel of the Mos Eisley Cantina or seeing the quartet in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the first time. This is a movie that could have been crap with the identical script if not for the crazy-ass visual stylist behind the camera. Everything from the design of goblins to giant stone men to forest entities to golden war golems to spears and swords has an ethereal, high fantasy sort of vibe to it. It's extremely easy to see why Peter Jackson picked del Toro to direct The Hobbit.

Now, this isn't to claim in any way shape or form that this was a perfect movie - the whole thing was shallow as a saucepan; if there was so much as a theme or an idea behind beyond "Hellboy and friends vs. fantasy bad guys with crazy visuals" then it flew over my head. Some people online complained that the relationships between Hellboy and Selma Blair / Jeffrey Tambor had regressed since the ending of the first movie, which is true, but I'm not nearly invested enough in the Hellboy story arc to have so much as thought about it. Hellboy II is goofy, shallow, glitzy popcorn fun done fairly well, and that's all. Go see it for the creatures and the spear fights and a few chuckles and you'll have successfully passed time until The Dark Knight.

3 Stars out of 5

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