Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Spoilers) (United States, 2008)
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The temptation is to remark that if Hellboy was the appetizer, then Hellboy II: The Golden Army is the main course. To an extent, that's true. The second film is more assured, better paced, and has a stronger emotional component. It takes chances, offers action, pathos and humor, provides a Barry Manilow singalong, and keeps the focus where it should be: on Hellboy. For all that it does well, however, Hellboy II stumbles at the end with two logic-defying plot holes that are so obvious it's inconceivable no one caught them or provided explanations. (Maybe there's some crucial information on the cutting room.) These flaws, minor as they might seem, damage the story and degrade the overall experience. Exhilaration gives way to a modicum of frustration.
Hellboy II assumes, but does not demand, that viewers have seen its predecessor. Little in the way of background is provided on the character and his compatriots - a group of freaks working for the U.S. government in a secret FBI installation. (In Hellboy II, it's located in Trenton, N.J. In Hellboy, it was in Newark. What's a few dozen miles between bastions of urban blight?) With the main human from the first movie removed from the action, Hellboy II turns its focus on the "family" of misfits occupying the ultra-secret installation. There's Red (Ron Perlman), the guy with the Incredible Hulk chest, Wolverine's penchant for smoking cigars and cracking wise, and a softer-than-soft spot in his heart for his beloved Liz (Selma Blair). At first blush, she appears to be human, until she flames on and transforms herself into a living, breathing conflagration. Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) is a smart amphibian, a cool Blue to Hellboy's hot Red. Finally, there's newcomer Johann Kraus (James Donn), an "ectoplasmic" gas bag who's all smoke and mirrors.
The villain this time around is the elf Prince Nuada (Luke Gross), who seeks to recover the three pieces of a crown that, once assembled, will give him ultimate control over the Golden Army - hundreds of unstoppable, indestructible warriors who can wage war against the hoards of humanity. Nuada's Achilles heel is his twin sister, Nuala (Anna Walton), who opposes his worldview. She and her piece of the crown fall under the protection of Hellboy and his friends, but none of them are prepared for the vengeance with which Nuada comes at them.
Hellboy II's story is more of a fantasy adventure than it is a straightforward superhero yarn. Visually and creatively, it is as much a close cousin to writer/director Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth as it is to its cinematic predecessor. Seeing the trolls, goblins, elves, and elementals come to life, it's not hard to see why Peter Jackson hand-picked del Toro to helm The Hobbit. One of the film's stand-out sequences, a visit to the "Trolls' Market," recalls not only Luke Skywalker's venture into the cantina but Harry Potter's first visit to Diagon Alley. Of course, Red is a little better equipped to defend himself than Luke or Harry.
The portrayals of the characters are note-perfect. Perlman "got" Red in the first film, so all he has to do is continue in the same vein. Selma Blair's Liz, however, is transformed from a skittish, closed-off woman to a confident, self-aware heroine. Doug Jones crafts Abe into more than a fish-man in a tank. The newcomers are all excellent, especially the elf twins, whose destinies in opposition open an artery of tragedy. Then there's Jeffrey Tambor, once again playing the officious head of the group, a paper-pusher who understands little and is in control of less.
As an action director, del Toro has advanced considerably since the previous feature. Many of the fights in Hellboy seemed obligatory. Here, they're full-blown, kick-ass tournaments. The battle royale near the end is impressive, especially when Hellboy realizes what's happening and punctuates it with a characteristic "Crap!" All of the characters get a chance to shine, whether it's Liz frying an army of tooth fairies, Abe defending Nuala with little more than his intellect and firm resolve, or Johann taking over a row of lockers. Of course, Hellboy is all over the place, smashing things, getting pummeled and, ultimately, showing that he's not as indestructible as he looks.
Hellboy II takes an opportunity to hint at a future storyline with a prophecy the likes of which we're accustomed to encountering in fantasy epics. Clearly, the view is for Hellboy to become an enduring, evolving franchise - which is what superhero tales need to avoid the pitfall of becoming static and repetitive. The Superman films of the '80s and the Batman films of the '90s fell victim to this; del Toro wants something different for Big Red.
From a plotting perspective, the film makes two large missteps during its denouement. Polished screenplays shouldn't have such readily identifiable flaws, which makes me wonder whether something important was deleted from the finished cut. Problem #1: Nuala's suicide kills Nuada. This is reasonable since the link between the two is well-established. But why wait until the end of the movie? If she's going to sacrifice herself, why not do it at a more meaningful time, like when her brother is about to kill the king? Or when he's about to take control of the Golden Army? Her ability to end his threat at any time with one well-placed knife thrust to her chest makes the entire movie seem kind of pointless. In reality, Nuada was never much of a danger. Problem #2: Liz turns the crown into slag. If she can melt the crown, why not offer this option to Nuala earlier? The elf princess could have turned over her piece to Liz, Liz could have destroyed it, and the Golden Army's threat would have been neutralized. Both of these instances represent sloppy screenwriting. It's hard to ignore such issues; they damage the integrity of the ending and that, in turn, makes the movie less special. Hellboy II is solid entertainment, but it's a shame such blemishes prevent it from achieving a higher level.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Spoilers) (United States, 2008)
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, John Alexander, James Donn, Luke Gross, Anna Walton, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hurt
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, based on the comic books by Mike Mignola
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures