Opening Friday, July 11th
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Any expectations I had of ever seeing an accurate, baroque depiction of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy went out the window when auteur (and I don’t use that term often) Guillermo Del Toro – coming off of Blade II having exercised his action chops and effectively put his mark on that franchise – directed Sony’s 2004 film Hellboy. The flawed, but still very good, translation didn’t precisely capture the essence of Mignola’s work. The script lacked focus (What exactly was Rasputin out to do and how so?) and featured a trivial leading man (Rupert Evans) to smooth the audience’s transition into, and acceptance of, Hellboy’s world. Del Toro adopted the character to meet his own needs and themes to varying degrees of success; and even though the finale was rather lackluster, it left fans, including myself, wanting more.
Unhindered by a meddling studio, given a larger sandbox and creative freedom, Del Toro has delivered one whopper of a sequel in Hellboy II, a titanic improvement over its predecessor – even if it is a further departure from the comics – that recaptures the adventure and awe of those ’60s and ’70s films FX pioneer Ray Harryhausen had partaken in with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.
Hellboy II opens with another look into the titular character’s past. We find a young horned HB (Who’s kinda freaky-lookin’, but the female contingent in my audience voiced a unified “Aw, cute!”) being told a bedtime story, by John Hurt encoring briefly as Professor Broom, of The Golden Army, a last resort weapon looming over a lengthy truce between humankind, rulers of the cities, and the creatures of fantasy. In wonderfully imaginative detail, Del Toro recounts this bit of exposition through Hellboy’s interpretation of the story which features animated wooden marionettes.
Flash forward to present time. Elf Prince Nuada (Goss, former Blade II baddie) – fed up by the humans’, for lack of a better term, raping of the planet – is declaring war on man and seeking to resurrect the Golden Army. He can only do so, however, by obtaining three essential pieces of a royal crown, one of which is reclaimed during a New York City auction. The other two are held by his sister, Nuala (Walton), and father/King Balor who reject his motives. Nuala goes on the run and finds protection in the arms of the B.P.R.D. and, you guessed it, Hellboy, Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman.
A little bit older, the trio faces grown-up problems. Hellboy and Liz notably struggle as a couple, feeling the frustrations of domesticity. She wants a new lifestyle change and a bit of space, tired of living in Hellboy’s wing at the B.P.R.D. headquarters. Hellboy, meanwhile, is doing some acting out on his own, ramping up his public presence much to the chagrin of Manning (Tambor). His most recent antics – particularly a stunt at the aforementioned auction house involving Tooth Fairies (they eat you and teeth are their delicacy) and an explosion that thrusts Hellboy into the media spotlight – leaves the government no choice but to sent a new B.P.R.D. agent to watch over him. Said newcomer is the ectoplasmic know-it-all Johann Krauss, a glass-domed import from Germany (“Germans make me nervous,” huffs Hellboy at their introduction.) voiced with riotous, sharp-as-a-nail zeal by Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane. Del Toro uses the new agent to keep things fresh, kick around some fun Nazi jabs and, wisely, relate Krauss’ presence to Hellboy’s inner conflicts of seeking popularity and deciding what is right, wrong or against his nature. MacFarlane is a scene-stealer and Perlman, much more comfortable in Hellboy’s skin this time out, is rightly on his toes every step of the way. Altogether, Del Toro’s meticulously drawn misfits set out to stop Nuada from attaining worldwide domination.
It’s a joint effort this time with each agent getting their time in the spotlight, especially Abe – seamlessly played by Doug Jones 100% (and taking over for David Hyde Pierce on vocal work) – and Liz who are granted more to do and some delicious comical bits.
Hellboy II, on one level, is a poignant essay with a “green” theme. Nuada balks at the rise in parking lots and shopping centers and Hellboy is faced with putting down a forest god, the last of its kind (that big green thing you see in the trailers). Is Nuada justified in his actions? Have we really screwed our planet up royally? And where does Hellboy – this creature straddling “their” world and ours – stand? These are just some of the questions explored, and many of the answers, we come to learn, probably won’t be answered until Hellboy III. Still, the sequel has a lot more subtext rippling beneath its majestic surface than one would expect going in. Del Toro also carefully weaves themes of acceptance and love amongst unlikely partners (Hellboy/Liz, Abe/Nuala) which offer subtle nods to classic monster films like Bride of Frankenstein (you have to believe Del Toro relished the fact his Hellboy is now a Universal production) and not-so-subtle moments like one featuring Abe, Hellboy, countless six-packs of Tecate and Barry Manilow. The latter scene is a crowd-pleaser that’s admittedly ridiculous, but also amiably endearing.
Visually, Hellboy II is a true marvel. Without a doubt, the troll market sequence and its menagerie of monsters will fuel discussion and raise comparisons to the creature cantina sequence from Star Wars. But like the Sinbad films and even Clash of the Titans, Hellboy’s journey from start to finish carries us along the tracks at a breakneck speed with every stop along the way introducing us to some new FX spectacle (mostly practical, it should be noted) to behold. Once one has picked their jaw up off the floor following the early Tooth Fairy attack there’s the introduction of Johann and his feats; then there’s King Balor’s Butcher Guards; the towering elemental; Wink, the troll with a retractable metallic hand; the winged Death; and so on and so on until the Golden Army is presented in a breathtaking climactic battle.
Accompanying it all is an efficient score by Danny Elfman that punctuates a lot of terrific beats, action-oriented or otherwise. I still missed Marco Beltrami’s Hellboy theme, however.
Never have I seen Del Toro this assured and this comfortable with a Hollywood picture. He’s come off of Pan’s Labyrinth with an immense confidence and it absolutely shines throughout Hellboy II. He’s not at all deterred by its scope and knows when to rein things in before they get out of hand. You never get the sense that Del Toro’s flourishes are egotistical excess. It’s just part of the world he has created. It’s organic. Yes, the somewhat gothic nature coursing through the first entry has been eschewed for high levels of fantasy; still, the film makes room to slyly remind you of Hellboy’s roots, who he is (“son of the Fallen One”) and where he is going (it ain’t good). For now, Del Toro enjoys his time in the sun – surrounded by his goblins, fairies and other beasties – before the storm clouds roll in and Hellboy is faced with even greater, darker challenges. When that time comes, consider me the first in line.
One final note: Look and listen for a few nods to Guillermo’s “Masters of Horror” chums John Landis and George Romero.