Time for me to own up. I never thought this movie would happen. The first Hellboy wasn’t exactly a box office smash and let’s face it, selling a superhero movie about a character who looks like Satan was never a sure thing to begin with. Yet I’ve never been happier to be wrong. The original movie showed tremendous potential, the character of Hellboy was flat out fantastic, needing only a better story, preferably one with fewer random, badly CGI’d tentacles, to roam around in. Hellboy II: The Golden Army delivers that, along with more of the charming, growling, cigar-chewing character depth which made Hellboy so damn engaging to begin with.
Director/writer Guillermo del Toro is going to get a lot of the credit, but it’s Ron Perlman, the guy under Hellboy’s red makeup, who makes this universe work. His performance is once again, nothing short of Oscar caliber. With Perlman under the prosthetics Hellboy isn’t just some freakish creation, he’s a living, breathing person who just happens to be really red. His demonic appearance means plenty of personal problems, and more than once Del Toro goes hook line and sinker for the well-meaning Frankenstein versus pitchfork wielding villagers comparison. But lumbering brute Hellboy is not. With or without horns, he’s the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with. Forget Batman or Spider-Man. If I had to have a superhero friend, Hellboy is the only one I’d want to plop down on a couch and drink beer with.
It’s when we’re just hanging out with the movie’s bizarre characters that Hellboy II is the most fun. It’s not just Perlman, he’s merely the leader of the pack. New additions to the team like gassy Johann Krauss, voiced perfectly by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane bring added dimension. Doug Jones in particular, is amazing as Hellboy’s fishy friend Abe Sapien, with an expanded role in this second film to let us get a better feel for what his character’s about. The best moment in Hellboy II has nothing to do with fighting bad guys or saving the world (though there’s plenty of that), instead it happens when Hellboy and Abe decide to get drunk, play sappy music, and wander around moaning about their love life. It’s brilliant because their emotions are so raw and real, yet their appearance is anything but. That juxtaposition will suck you in, and leave you longing for more time with Hellboy and his oddish pals.
Even though quite frankly the movie doesn’t need it, Hellboy II does still have that save the world plot. The story picks up a significant, yet unaddressed amount of time after the first film. Hellboy and Liz (Selma Blair) have finally hooked up together and settled in, while Hellboy still longs for the world to know who the heck he is. Meanwhile, the underworld’s mystical creatures are plotting to declare war on man. An Elf prince is planning to resurrect a mythical army of indestructible warriors, which means that before long Hellboy and his federally funded team of ghost chasers are put in the line of fire. It’s a fun excuse for Hellboy to shoot stuff, and it’s done without some of the confusing magical mumbo-jumbo which cluttered up the story of the original Hellboy.
While the action adventure plotline is indeed a serious improvement over the half-assed story the first movie wrapped itself in, there’s no denying that it’s still the weakest thing about this series. Or maybe it’s simply that Del Toro’s hero characters are so good, we’re less interested in watching them save the world than we are in watching them hang out at home and simply be themselves. Del Toro tries to compensate for that by using his adventure plot to bring out more in his characters, but the film never flows as well when we’re fighting maniac elves as it does when Hellboy, Liz, and Abe are simply talking, living, and breathing.
That’s not to say the action isn’t entertaining. It is, in a breezy sort of way. It helps that this time the special effects are truly mind blowing. Del Toro has refused to be suckered in by Hollywood’s trend of CGI overuse, preferring instead to mix amazing practical effects with computer generated effects. The result is that when a monster walks across the screen, you believe he’s actually there… because he is. Most of the best creatures in the film, of which there are literally dozens and dozens of different varieties, are not animated caricatures but actors wearing the most amazing costumes you’ve ever seen. The same is true of Hellboy and all of his fellow heroes. Watching Hellboy requires no suspension of disbelief, because these things are actually there and being acted out by real actors inside amazing prosthetics. Seeing is believing.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a definite improvement over the first, already pretty good Hellboy film. Hellboy himself is without a doubt, the most compelling and interesting superhero character that’s ever made it on screen, which makes it kind of a shame that even though this second one is spectacularly entertaining, the adventure plot still doesn’t seem quite up to par with Perlman’s spellbinding performance or the amazing dialogue Guillermo has written for him. Hellboy has the best superhero character ever, a bonafide icon. So maybe he isn’t in the best superhero movie ever, but there’s so much to love here that Hellboy II comes close. The Golden Army is a must see, whether you’re already a Hellboy fan or not. If you’re not, by the time you walk out, you will be. Bring on Hellboy III.
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