Review - Hellboy II: The Golden Army
By Matthew Huntley
July 16, 2008

I only had 17 more payments on that car!

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is proof that big budget, Hollywood extravaganzas can still exceed our expectations. This is an inventive, visually stimulating adventure film that tells a traditional albeit exciting story to let us know it's not just about special effects and makeup. When it comes to comic book adaptations, or even action films in general, Hellboy II is so ambitious it almost deserves its own league.

I'm not exactly sure what my expectations were. The director, once again, is Guillermo del Toro, the gifted filmmaker behind Pan's Labyrinth and producer of The Orphanage, one of the best horror films in recent memory. The man knows cinema; he's a pure visualist who simply loves the medium in which he's engrossed himself. For del Toro, movies are about images that tell a story and he's nailed that concept.

While I enjoyed the first Hellboy (2004), I felt its convoluted plot sometimes got in the way of the characters. This time, the plot may be simpler but it's also more focused. What it lacks in complexity it gains in coherence and spirit.

In an amusing flashback to 1955, a pre-teen Hellboy, whom you'll recall is a red-skinned demon saved by the American army after World War II, listens excitedly as his adopted father, Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), tells him the story of The Golden Army. Legend has it humans and mythical creatures used to live in harmony but fell into war with each other after humans developed a hole in their hearts and became greedy.

The King of the Elves, King Balor, commissions for a gold crown to be made that allows its user to summon near 5,000 soldiers to fight the human race. Once he witnesses the devastation the army causes, he forms a truce with the humans that will let them have the cities and the creatures the forests. The crown is split into three pieces - one piece is given to the humans and two are kept by King Balor. Balor's son, Prince Nuada (Luke Gross), never approved of the truce and went into exile as the Golden Army lay dormant.

Some 50 years later, we catch up with the adult Hellboy (Ron Perlman) at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. He's now in a rocky relationship with Liz (Selma Blair), the pyrokinetic who's learned to better manipulate her powers (just don't make her mad). There's also Abe (Doug Jones), the slithery, fish-like psychic with a taste for high society, and Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), the director of the BPRD who works hard to keep it a clandestine operation. Manning pops antacid tablets every time he sees Hellboy posing for the paparazzo.

Hellboy and company are called in to investigate a disturbance at a New Jersey auction house, where Prince Nuada arrived to retrieve the humans' piece of the Golden Crown. He was aided by Wink, a walrus-looking troll with a retractable fist. When BPRD arrives, all that's left are human entrails. Nuada released a horde of calcium-feeding insects, appropriately called "tooth fairies," which start by eating human teeth and work their way down the skeletal system. Liz works her magic to get rid of them, but the incident exposes the group to the public.

In an amusing side story, Manning hires a German agent to help manage BPRD and keep an eye on Hellboy. This is Johann Kraus, an "ectoplasmic spirit with psychic abilities," whom, I learn from Wikipedia, came to be his present self after conducting a séance during a psychic version of Chernobyl, which took away his human form. He now functions from a containment suit and runs things completely by the book. In one of the movie's funniest scenes, Kraus tells Hellboy his greatest flaw is his short temper, resulting in a creative sequence involving lockers.

Not only does Hellboy II have better characters than the original, but the returning ones are also better developed. Perlman is still cool and lax as Hellboy, now more comfortable in the role, and Liz has more screen time. Selma Blair isn't the greatest actress, but she fits this role nicely. I enjoyed Hellboy and Liz's petty squabbling, thanks mostly to Perlman's irreverent attitude.

The plot revolves around Prince Nuada's plan to vanquish the human race because of their greedy and selfish nature. It's simple, yes, but Nuada is not made out to be a standard villain. He believes in a just cause and he actually puts up a good case when he tries to convince Hellboy to join him. An odd but sweet relationship also forms between Abe and Nuada's sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton). An inspired scene shows Abe getting drunk with Hellboy because both males have women problems.

Thanks to del Toro's relentless energy and affection for his story, Hellboy II was a film I could not call. Everything that happens in it doesn't seem to happen for the sake of the plot. It feels more rhythmic and spontaneous; it's also unpredictable. There's always something going on, but it's not overwhelming or daunting. del Toro finds a balance between the multiple storylines and relationships, which seamlessly blend and each finds appreciable screen time.

Then there are the special effects, which will be what's most remembered from the film, and with good reason. The monsters and creatures, many of which we see after Hellboy and the gang take a trip to a troll market underneath Brooklyn Bridge, are layered, textured and incredibly detailed, even in the close-ups. The fight scenes are also well-staged and we're able to follow what's going. They're not crazily cut and the choreography keeps the energy levels thriving. The best scene finds Hellboy fighting a Forest God while holding a baby, a scene made even better because Hellboy is allowed to ponder the idea of not destroying it.

After you see it, you may think I'm giving Hellboy II too much praise. Perhaps it's because it awakened in me a little kid yearning for a sense of imagination and wonder, which this film ceaselessly provides. Or maybe this is really a terrific entertainment with superb production values. For me, the film worked on so many levels it deserves multiple viewings.

Next up for del Toro is the much-anticipated The Hobbit, and while it will be the film's name that draws people into theaters, it will be the director who makes them remember it. The jolly, infectious del Toro has proven he's a man who simply loves going to the movies, and it's that love that makes his own films special and imaginative.