The burgeoning "Hellboy" franchisethe 2004 original
and now its sequel, "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"stand apart from a lot of comic book-based superhero films for a couple reasons. The first is writer-director Guillermo Del Toro (2006's "Pan's Labyrinth
"), whose boundless creative aspirations and special knack for unusual creature designs glitter when placed next to more commercial, conventional sci-fi/action pics. The second is in the treatment of the heroes, who may be paranormal and not quite of this world, but nonetheless are
. Earth-bound and very much mortal, the protagonistsmuscled, horned, red-skinned Hellboy (Ron Perlman); fire-making girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and book-smart amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones)may be different from me or you, but Del Toro looks beyond their abilities and physical appearance and sees them as real people with all of the vulnerability, insecurity, compassion and emotional nuances that go hand-in-hand with one's humanity.
At New Jersey's top-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, partners Hellboy, Liz and Abe have settled into their roles, actingsometimes with little fanfare from the massesas saviors against the world's darker otherworldly forces. Hellboy and Liz are having relationship troubles and Liz is about to make a life-altering discovery, but these things must be pushed temporarily aside when they are assigned their next mission. In an effort to arouse to life the mythical, unstoppable Golden Army and start a war against mankind, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) must collect all the pieces of a powerful sacred crown. Standing in his way is peace-seeking twin sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who holds the last remaining section of the crown. When Abe takes a shine to her, the Bureau sweeps her away to what they believe will be protection. Prince Nuada, however, shares part of his sister's mind, and will stop at nothing to get to her.
With all of the setup and character introductions already out of the way, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has freer reign to his imaginative whims. Certainly, "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" is larger in scale than its predecessor, as is the scope with which he explores the mystical creatures and Gods that play a part within the story. From the small but deadly Tooth Fairies, who voraciously eat away a person's skin and bones, to a giant, tentacled tree god who rises up from beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, to a climactic run-in with the mesmerizingly freakish Angel of Death, the picture is at no loss in presenting images and beings not quite like anything seen on film before. Inspirations varyhints of "Star Wars" and Del Toro's own "Pan's Labyrinth
" abound, while the tree god sequence calls to mind 2008's "Cloverfield
"but it is consistently clear that a mind is at work in bringing this stuff to life.
More comical in nature, "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" mixes knowing behavioral humor with occasional one-liners, but the movie also is aware of when to turn serious. Hellboy, Liz and Abe are well-wrought characters that the viewer invests in, and perhaps the best scene is one in which Hellboy and Abe bond while drinking their romantic woes away. It's like something out of a romantic comedy, and the tweaking of multiple genres surprisingly works. Taking time out to focus on relationship issues and the like comes with a price, though. The narrative momentum, which was steadfast and reliable in the first "Hellboy
," is spottier this time, and the fantastical adventure side of the plot doesn't quite take off as one hopes. The third act, despite offering up a satisfying last-minute shade of sympathetic clarity for villain Prince Nuada, is a bit anticlimactic, especially since it immediately follows the forbiddingly chilling confrontation with the Angel of Death.
Ron Perlman was born to portray Hellboy, a tough, macho superhero of sorts who's really just a puppy dog on the inside. Decked out in make-up and prosthetics, Perlman, as well as Doug Jones (2007's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
") as the gilled, webbed, amphibious Abe, take hold of their characters to such an expert degree that the audience instantly accepts their looks and concentrates on their irresistible personalities. And, as Liz Sherman, Selma Blair (2007's "Feast of Love
") also comes into her own and makes the love she has for Hellboy not only plausible, but sweet. Kudos, too, for the vastly improved visual effects involving Liz's pyrotechnic abilities, which were clunky and stood out for all the wrong reasons in the inaugural entry.
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army" is a solid, if not overwhelming, action feature that will surely please comic book fanboys. If the premise isn't exactly air-tight and the pacing is uneven, the visual panache and central character work helps to make up for some of its deficiencies. If there is a second sequelGuillermo Del Toro reportedly hopes there is, and plans to pit the Bureau against classic Universal monsters like Dracula and the Wolf Manthere will certainly be room for further improvement. With guides as amiable and layered as Hellboy and company, a "Hellboy III" would be more than welcome.