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Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Director: Guillermo del Toro

review by Roger Keen

After the success of Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro is back in mainstream mode with a sequel to his 2004 Hellboy, this time taking the trio of Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence agents Hellboy, alias 'Red' (Ron Perlman), Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) on an adventure that owes a debt to his previous film in its look, feel and parallel world structure.

The new mission starts when belligerent Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), heir to the throne of an elfin kingdom, goes on the rampage, intent on gaining possession of the components of a magical crown that when assembled together will give him control over the legendary mechanical Golden Army, and so start a new war with mankind. Opposing Nuada is his sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who in the name of peace must conceal her portion of the crown from him at all costs. When Nuada wrecks an auction of rare artefacts, the team get involved, finding themselves battling hordes of tiny but deadly teeth-gnashing tooth fairies, the first of an impressive array of monstrosities that range in scale up to the super-heavyweight troll Wink and the gigantic green roaring forest elemental.

On the home front, Red and Liz are going through a tough patch, with pyrokinetic Liz becoming inflamed - literally - at Red's behaviour and attitude. His publicity-seeking and lack of observance of undercover protocols have also landed him in trouble with his boss, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), and after the BPRD gets featured on the TV news, its cover blown, a new hardliner is sent in to keep Red on a tighter leash. This is Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane), an ectoplasmic entity who assumes human form by means of a kind of diving suit and whose powers give him access to the secrets of arcane realms.

With Krauss at the helm, the investigation becomes more focussed and some lavish set pieces follow. The Troll Market sequence is an awesome creature-fest that is reminiscent of the bars scenes from Star Wars and Total Recall and culminates in fisticuffs between Red, Nuada and Wink, the troll with an extendable mace for a hand. The eventual climax takes place around the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, where the multifarious clockwork of the Golden Army clicks into gear for the big showdown.

Hellboy's happy with his gun

What's good about Hellboy II is the assured visual splendour, with its carefully controlled colour palette and very adroit integration of actuality, CGI and animatronics to create a cohesive, believable whole. As in Pan's Labyrinth, a real world and a fantasy one exist side by side, interfacing here and there and sometimes spilling one into the other, but always with acceptable logic. So there's no problem with our protagonists submerged amongst trolls one minute and out on the streets of New York the next. Similarly having the red skinned and horned Hellboy being ticked-off by bald, suited straight-man Manning, as though Red's just another wayward employee, makes for an amusing juxtaposition of two contrasting worlds.

What's not so good is that after a while the underlying plot begins to reduce down to that familiar and wearisome battle of good against evil, and you can pretty much guess how it's going to pan out. As a baddie, Nuada is formidable at first glance, but eventually becomes rather two-dimensional, with Luke Goss playing very much the same kind of role as he did in Blade II. And despite the convincing design of the various creatures, they come to feel increasingly cartoonified as the law of diminishing returns sets in. What Hellboy II lacks is any real sense of danger, edginess and menace behind the fantasy - the very things The Dark Knight has in spades. There is no subtext; what you see is what you get.

But perhaps in compensation, del Toro has striven to make his main characters more rounded and fleshed-out, more 'human' than in the first movie. Icthyo sapien Abe, now voiced as well as played by Doug Jones, has a C-3PO-ish fussiness and delicacy about him, which plays well against Red's gruff manliness. Abe gets a crush on Nuala and in perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, he and Red have a significant moment of male bonding, cracking open some cans as Red consoles his love-sick friend to the strains of Barry Manilow's Can't Smile Without You. It's all very droll and rib-tickling, but it sits uneasily with the rest of the action. Not for the first time it feels as though del Toro isn't sure what kind of film he's making, whether it's a credible comic book monster piece, a more lightweight fantasy adventure of the Harry Potter or Mummy ilk, or some kind of a rom-com.

Hellboy gets tough on elves

As for Red himself, discount the skin and the horns and he's very much that staple movie character of the big, tough guy with a heart of gold, the gentle giant and all that entails. With his side-whiskers, he could be another version of Mr T, or perhaps Moose Malloy, or Luca Brasi, or the Beast, or Shrek. Apart from a few anger-management issues, there's nothing really sinister about Red, and in humanising him and showing his vulnerable, domestic side with Liz, he has perhaps become a little too cuddly. How different he is from, say, Marv in Sin City, a real screwed-up headcase but still a force for good.

Ultimately, Hellboy II comes across as something of an oddity. It's not so much a sequel to Hellboy as just another episode, and taking the two together it's difficult to detect much of an arc pointing the way towards a third act. Clearly it's a del Toro film, but one senses a lack of assurance here that contrasts with the confidence of his more personal 'art' films - Chronos, The Devil's Backbone, and Pan's Labyrinth. Fans of the original comics and of comic book movies in general will find plenty to criticise, and after two outings it feels the franchise isn't working nearly as well as, for example, X-Men, probably its nearest equivalent.

With no deal yet finalised for a third movie, and del Toro booked for years to come on the two 'Hobbit' films, Hellboy's future rather hangs in the balance. As for del Toro himself, he has now advanced to the first rank of directors, and so he can file away Hellboy II as a partially successful experiment, not one of his high points but something to learn from. What we're all really waiting to see is how his take on Tolkien compares to Peter Jackson's.
Hellboy 2

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