At long last! A big summer movie that I actually want to see again has arrived with Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army—hands down the best big release I’ve seen all summer. It may not be in quite the same league as del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), but it’s clearly the product of the same imagination. It’s also a huge advance over del Toro’s original Hellboy (2004). We’re almost in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Frankenstein (1931) territory here. Much like Bride, such backstory as is deemed necessary is tossed off in a story-telling prologue, while the overall film soars on del Toro’s untethered visual imagination and dark humor. (Is this perhaps why Hellboy II includes clips from Bride playing on the TV?)
For the uninitiated, Hellboy (Ron Perlman)—created by comic-book writer Mike Mignola, who worked with del Toro on the story—is a demonic holdover from a thwarted black-magic effort of the Nazis to win World War II. He is taken in as a bouncing baby Beelzebub by Prof. Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and raised as his son. Despite his Luciferian background—not to mention red skin, telltale tail and horns—Hellboy is a good guy. In fact, he’s a kind of good-natured romantic overgrown kid with a penchant for cats, cigars and vast quantities of beer. Hell, he’s such a good guy that he even has a more or less stable marriage with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a nice lady with a superhero tendency to burst into flame on occasion. He even has a good friend, the über-smart fish man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, getting to use his own voice this time).
The downside is that Hellboy is a little on the bumptious side—something that causes no end of misery for the bureaucratic Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, EuroTrip), who oversees the supersecret government organization known as the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. It’s not just that Hellboy doesn’t like being a secret, but he’s a rather conspicuous sort of secret. Fighting the forces of evil and remaining unseen by the public is a tricky business—and it’s that much trickier when you’d like nothing so much as to fit in and be a part of that public. (To this end, Hellboy keeps his horns filed down, but it doesn’t really help.)
In this new adventure, the world is threatened by the plans of the elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, Blade II) to bring together three parts of a crown that will allow him to unleash the Golden Army, an unstoppable, self-repairing horde of “steampunkish” robots. Doing so will break an ancient truce with humankind, but Nuada is not without a certain justification in that humanity is well on its way to destroying the earth. Total destruction of the human race might seem a little drastic—especially coming from a guy who looks like an Edgar Winter impersonator—but it’s nice to find an enemy with something more on his mind than world domination and a penchant for Michael Bay mayhem.
Unfortunately for the prince, his sister, Princess Nuala (British TV actress Anna Walton), isn’t in his corner, especially after he kills their father (British TV veteran Roy Dotrice) to get control of the old boy’s piece of the magical crown. Nuala not only aligns herself with the enemy, she becomes romantically involved with Abe, complicating matters for everyone.
The bulk of the story concerns the battle for control of the crown that provides control of the Golden Army, but this is nothing more than a workable plot to encase the characters and del Toro’s boundless imagination for creatures and worlds that are simultaneously horrific and beautiful. There’s certainly magic here—not in the least because of the strong sense of reality afforded by going heavy on the floor effects, animatronic and puppet creations, and light on the CGI—but it goes far beyond mere breathtaking fantasy imagery.
There’s an almost tangible sense of humanity—especially in the film’s decidedly other-than-human (at least on the outside) characters. Del Toro has tapped into the inner pain of the fanboy mind-set in a way that’s a shade different from the usual outsider mind-set. There’s something deeper at work in this film than that, something even beyond the gay subtext of the first two X-Men movies. It’s inherent in the Hellboy character and his burning—and hopeless—desire to fit in. But with the depiction of Hellboy and Abe as wholly susceptible to the drippiest of Barry Manilow love songs, “Can’t Smile Without You,” the mask of indifference to being outside the norm falls away, revealing the pain and humanity beneath—albeit in a charming, light-handed manner. Still, it comes across: We’re all saps under the skin.
Combine the characters, the depth of the characterizations, del Toro’s amazing visions and a delightfully quirky sense of humor, and there’s just not much not to love about Hellboy II. I’ll grant you that you’ll probably see the movie’s resolution long before it gets there, but it’s the sort of grandly tragic operatic resolution that works in spite of its predictability. It’s also the kind of ending—like much about the film—that I suspect will only improve on subsequent viewings. Here’s a comic-book movie with a heart, a soul, a brain and a personality of its own—as personal in its own way as del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Rated PG -13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language.