First of all, vacation so far is stellar. Last night the gang headed out to see Hellboy II: The Golden Army at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, followed by a ridiculous hamburger at Mel’s that had bacon and avocado on it.
I loved it.
The movie and the burger.
And the company. Met some really great folks. (Kareem, you are a lucky man to have the beautiful, sweet, intelligent Claire in your life, and I really enjoyed talking with your other friends.)
And now let’s talk about this movie.
Director Guillermo del Toro follows up his well-lauded masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth with a return to the world of demons, dames and secret agencies he created in 2004 with his adaptation of writer/artist Mike Mignola’s cool, creepy Hellboy comics. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a fun, funny romp with some of the summer’s biggest action and a heart that beats with plenty of adventure and love.
Hellboy gained the attention (and wowed the imaginations) of the industry with his first miniseries, Seed of Destruction, in 1994. (Check out the first in a series of new giant new hardcover library editions that collects Seed and its sequel, Wake the Devil, from Dark Horse Comics.) The story has a crackerjack origin if there ever was one: In 1944, Nazi scientists and a rather undead Rasputin attempt to conjure a group of Armageddon-bringers known as the Ogdru Jahad. It almost works until the evil ritual is interrupted by a team of American commandos aided by British paranormal expert Trevor Bruttenholm, and a little red baby demon called Anung un Rama appears instead.
Bruttenholm adopts the child and raises the “Hellboy” in a good, loving home, and he becomes the World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator. Among his BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) teammates are foxy fire-starter Liz Sherman and amphibious fish-man Abraham Sapien. Imagine a combination of Indiana Jones, Batman, and The X-Files running around in stories told by a guy with a fascinating knowledge of (and sense of wonder for) myths and fairy tales. It’s great stuff.
Del Toro took a slightly different approach to the material with the first film. In the comics, everyone knows that Hellboy exists and his adventures are relatively well-known. Del Toro’s take casts the BPRD as a top-secret team whose existence is a heavily guarded secret. It also treated Hellboy and his pals as more of a dysfunctional family, with Hellboy being in love with Liz Sherman. (No such romance ever existed in the comics, and its presence in the film was a bit jarring.) It was good, fun movie, but sometimes its often urban set-pieces lacked the creepiness of the ruined castles and stark, spooky Eastern European villages rendered with such gloriously creepy, deceptive simplicity by Mignola in the comics.
And make no mistake: The Golden Army is still not Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. But it is a wonderfully imaginative adventure of Del Toro’s Hellboy as lovingly endorsed by Mignola, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
We begin at Christmas time in 1955, with Professor Bruttenholm (played by John Hurt with wisdom and warmth) reading a young Hellboy a bedtime story about an ancient battle between humans and the fairy-tale world, shown on screen with state-of-the-art stop-motion animation that will knock your socks off. The King of the Elves enlists a goblin to build him a mechanical Golden Army of clockwork soldiers who work so well that the humans make a truce with the Elves: the humans will keep their cities, and the creatures of myth get the forests.
Flash forward to present-day, when exiled elf prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who never agreed with his father’s truce in the first place, seeks to unite the three pieces of the golden crown that allows its wearer to control the Golden Army. Murder and mayhem bring the first two pieces into his possession, but he’ll have to hunt his sister, Nuala (Anna Walton), for the second.
Abe (Doug Jones) falls in love with Nuala after meeting her at the Troll Market, which is Del Toro’s lovingly realised, modern-day version of the Star Wars cantina scene. Jones performed inside the suit in the first film but the character was voiced by David Hyde-Pierce; this time around Jones does the voice and makes Abe feel even more human than he did in the first film.
Things aren’t going so well on the romance front for Hellboy, whose relationship with Liz is rockier than his red Right Hand of Doom. Little does he know that it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated due to two little secrets that Liz hasn’t figured out how to tell him about yet. And then there’s the matter of Hellboy’s clashes with the BPRD’s disciplinarian new field leader, an ectoplasmic spirit named Johann Krauss who contains himself inside a suit that’s half ancient astronaut and half deep-sea diver. Johann is voiced by Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane with much gifted glee.
The entire cast is brilliant. Genre workman Ron Perlman’s Hellboy is even better this time around; Perlman plays him as a guy who’d rather punch a monster and buy you a beer than bring about the end of the world, and his awkward, misguided attempts at romancing Liz bring lots of laughs. As Liz herself, Selma Blair is hotter and more combustible than the flames her character can conjure. Ever-hilarious Jeffrey Tambor is also back as the BPRD’s harried human caretaker, Agent Manning.
Luke Goss and Anna Walton are each ethereal in their own ways as the ancient elf siblings; Walton radiates beauty and sadness while Goss navigates his truly wicked fight choreography (using a variety of weapons) with thrilling skill and terrifying precision. As a screen presence he is truly a force to be reckoned with, yet his lament that the world is a poorer place without the presence of the creatures of myth and imagination is delivered so soundly that it perfectly sums up the heart of the film.
Hellboy and his friends are seen here as freaks and outcasts, but find solace and acceptance in each other. This dynamic becomes particularly interesting when Nuada reminds Hellboy that he has far more in common with beings of mystery and myth than he does with the humans who fear his devilish appearance. The scene during which Hellboy and Abe drown their subsequent confusions and girl-induced sorrows with help from beer and Barry Manilow is an instant classic.
The Golden Army is to Hellboy what Spider-Man 2 was to Spider-Man: a magnificent growth of character, humour, and heart with bigger, better action and massive improvements on every level. Laughs, thrills, monsters and imaginative mythology combine for one of the summer’s most magical times at the movies.
Check it out.
And next week … THE DARK KNIGHT.
And for now … I’m off to Santa Barbara now to meet my beautiful friend Kate for two days of excellent hospitality and tour guidance. I’ll check in when I can!