Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army -- A bit tarnished

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) • View trailer for Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and considerable action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.08
Buy DVD: Hellboy II: The Golden Army • Buy Blu-Ray: Hellboy II: The Golden Army [Blu-ray]

Back when he made 2004's Hellboy, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was a star on the rise, known primarily in this country for an obscure (but quite imaginative) 1997 horror flick, Mimic, and 2002's stylish but otherwise forgettable second entry in Wesley Snipes' Blade series.
And you think you're having a bad day? Our misfit heroes — from left,
protoplasmic mystic Johann Krauss, aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones),
reformed demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma
Blair) — reluctantly prepare for a last stand against 4,900 massive robot
warriors of death.

Arthouse patrons also had some exposure to del Toro, thanks to 2001's wonderfully moody ghosts-in-an-orphanage saga, The Devil's Backbone.

What a difference four years makes.

Today, deservedly riding the enormous success of Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has used his enhanced prestige to rebound with — no, not another adult chiller in the mold of his Academy Award darling — a second crack at one of his favorite comic book characters.

Yep, Hellboy is back, in Hellboy II: The Golden Army ... but as far as del Toro's career is concerned, this sequel is a backwards step.

I don't fault the intent: Unlike too many stuffy Americans, del Toro is an unapologetic pop culture junkie, and that's commendable. (Del Toro's movie and comic book collection has grown so huge that he had to purchase a second house just to store it.)

And, like some of the more talented writers and artists toiling in the comic book medium these days, del Toro understands that these four-color adventures can be tailored for older audiences. I just wish del Toro had matched this new film's rich, imaginative and eye-popping visuals with a similarly strong and engaging script.

Granted, comic book writer/artist Mike Mignola's Hellboy — Mignola co-wrote this film's script with del Toro — remains a singularly fascinating protagonist.

Actually a demon spawned in hell and brought to Earth as an infant by WWII-era Nazis seeking any means to defeat the Allies — honestly, you gotta love this character's backstory — Hellboy was rescued by the good guys and raised to protect mankind from the occasional paranormal assault or underworld invasion.

His efforts remain under the radar, thanks to the belief by his government "handlers" that ordinary folks might have trouble getting cuddly with a horned red creature sporting a tail, a (literally) sledgehammer right hand and a snarky attitude ... even if he does adore kittens.

By necessity, then, Hellboy's good deed-doing has remained clandestine, as the head bad-ass for the top-top-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, where he's joined by several other misfit agents. All are "chaperoned" by long-suffering government wonk Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, always a hoot as a fussy bureaucrat).

Think Men in Black, but with a so-ugly-he's-cute hero instead of handsome fellas in three-piece suits.

The concept works in comics because Mignola's plots are so wonderfully bizarre and audacious; the series translates well to the big screen thanks to del Toro's ferocious imagination and visual flair, and star Ron Perlman's impressive ability to act beneath a boatload of make-up.

Granted, Perlman has had considerable practice, what with numerous unusual film roles — starting with 1981's all but dialogueless Quest for Fire — and his still-popular late-1980s run beneath a lot of fur on TV's Beauty and the Beast. Perlman has a way with raised eyebrows and the set of his jaw; he elicits sympathy under the most improbable circumstances. He's also deadly with arch one-liners, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army gives him plenty of those.

Actually, that's the trouble. Hellboy II uses its hip, flip attitude to obscure a predictable, ho-hum storyline that doesn't make much sense and fails to address the few serious moral issues that seem to have wandered in from some other project.

But if you want monsters, this is your summer cup of tea. Creature and makeup-effects guru Mike Elizalde and visual effects supervisor Michael J. Wassel really go to town with this flick; our horned hero faces all sorts of uglies and nasties, large and small, and quite frequently gets the stuffing knocked out of him.

No sequence is better than a lengthy visit to the "Troll Market," the entrance to which is carefully concealed beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. We've not been this dazzled by so many strange and wonderful creatures since Luke Skywalker stumbled into that cantina back in 1977's original Star Wars.

To be sure, many of the larger beasties are actors concealed within clever costumes, but look more closely at the tiny winged critters, or those with improbable anatomies. Pure magic.

All the more reason this story becomes monotonous, because every one of Hellboy's various battles with these mystical fiends devolves into a brawl, a gun battle or a sword fight. Aside from his stubborn nature and indestructible hide, Hellboy seems rather ordinary when compared to his adversaries.

... and he's not nearly as dangerous as colleague and girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), a pyrokinetic who can torch an entire room when she gets annoyed (which is frequent).

One begins to tire, after the recent steady diet of fantasy films, of climactic confrontations that are no more than two characters wielding swords and leaping about like cast-offs from an Asian martial-arts epic. (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, alas, has much to answer for in this respect.)

So many marvelous creatures, and so much magic being manipulated, and we keep getting stuck with swordplay?


That said, the film begins well, with Hellboy, Liz and Abe (Doug Jones) — an aquatic empath who must wear a special suit when on land — responding to an unspecified emergency at a tony Manhattan auction house. Our heroes and several expendable (human) BPRD agents face off against a massive swarm of "tooth fairies": small and nasty winged creatures with an insatiable appetite for calcium.

Unfortunately, Liz's explosive resolution to this crisis exposes Hellboy to the world, and Manning's concern proves justified: Even open-minded New Yorkers aren't sure they want this whatzis in their midst. But after some initial wisecracks made at Hellboy's expense, the greater issues relating to this new public-relations nightmare are left unaddressed.

Granted, Hellboy gets pretty busy, dealing with the elfin Prince Nuada Silverlance (Luke Goss, not terribly persuasive as this film's alpha villain), who has grown weary of a centuries-old truce between his people — all the underworld trolls, fairy folk and assorted monsters — and mankind. Indeed, the pact is so ancient that we humans have forgotten all about it, and are encroaching ever more into "their" realms (Earth's forests, according to legend).

Truth be told, being ignored probably annoys Nuada more than anything else.

To that end, the irritated elf embarks on a quest to obtain all three parts of a mystical crown that will allow him to control the army of "70 times 70" golden robot warriors of this film's title. Nuada's twin sister, Nuala (Anna Walton), doesn't share her brother's blood lust; her quiet, similarly empathic nature strikes a lovestruck chord in Abe's heart, when the two meet.

This leads to the film's most overreached attempt at broad humor, as Hellboy and Abe get drunk while listening to Barry Manilow and discussing the unpredictability of women. Depending on your taste, this scene will be perceived as a giggle ... or a self-indulgent, story-stopping waste of time.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Hellboy II. Del Toro simply doesn't take his film seriously enough, so why should we? One-liners, sight gags and snarky attitude should work in service of a greater narrative experience; they shouldn't become the entire experience.

Additionally, too many questions abound. Precisely how does Abe's special suit not get shattered, during a knockdown skirmish with Nuada's massive troll henchman, Wink? And what's the story on Johann Krauss, the "protoplasmic mystic" assigned to Hellboy's team after the public exposure: good guy, bad guy, by-the-book guy or spontaneous guy? Hey, the answer changes from moment to moment.

Finally, Hellboy's brief exposure to vulnerability and potential death actually has little to do with this story, and feels more like a gratuitous set-up for yet another sequel. Sloppy, sloppy.

If only del Toro had spent as much time with the clumsy script as he did with — for example — the wonderfully clever, gear-grinding effects that "forge" the title credits.

Don't get too full of yourself, Guillermo ... that's the fastest way to blowing good will and a budding career.

You don't want to go the way of M. Night Shyamalan.

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