– Summary –
Director : Guillermo Del Toro
Year Of Release : 2008
Principal Cast : Ron Pearlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Jeffrey Tambor, voice of Seth McFarlane
Approx Running Time : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: Hellboy and his team of paranormal investigators must stop a vengeful Elf from unleashing the indestructible Golden Army upon the world, in retribution for centuries of neglect and destruction of Earth.
What we think : Visually stunning, yet somehow emotionally empty fantasy comic-book film, Hellboy II isn’t a patch on the original movie, and simply seems to be going through the motions. You can see the dedication and love for the project in every frame of this film, however the lack of character development and emotional depth means the whole thing rings a little hollow, which is disappointing.
Stylish, action-oriented fantasy comic-book epic, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a film bereft of simplicity and bogged down with a plethora of style. Guillermo Del Toro, reprising the characters he originally originally brought to life in the original Hellboy, has not only recaptured the vagrant wit of the original film, but also the sense of whimsy the production design presents. Filled to the brim with eye candy of a magnitude afforded normally only the bigger budgeted films, Hellboy II remains, unfortunately, the domain of fanboys and genre aficionados. For the mainstream, I tend to think Hellboy will be over (or should that be beneath?) your heads. So, if you’re not a comic book geek or a fantasy film fanatic, then it’s fair to say this film isn’t aimed at you and you’d probably find more enjoyment with dreck like Valentine’s Day or The Bounty Hunter. Which is a subtle hint that perhaps you should broaden your cinematic outlook and give Hellboy a chance.
Never having read the Mike Mignola comic on which this film franchise is based, I can only go on what I see represented on the screen. No doubt had I read the comics I may have drawn more out of both films, however my formative comic book days were mainly DC’s Superman, Batman and all that crowd. Mignola’s more art-house comic series didn’t appeal to me. Upon reflection, maybe I should have been more open minded: oh well. This review, in any case, will be unfettered by my views on the original comic and how it translates to the screen.
I really enjoyed Del Toro’s original Hellboy film. I liked its sly wit and wonderful visual style, alongside the great character interactions of Hellboy and Liz, and felt that Del Toro had managed to capture the “kooky” feel of Mignola’s comic creations. That said, I had high hopes for the inevitable sequel, subtitled The Golden Army. Unfortunately, the sequel suffers a little too much from an overkill of visuals, and a lack of quality character development. Of note, the lacklustre development of the main character, Hellboy (Ron Pearlman), and his female companion Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Were a film’s quality to be solely judged on production design and visual style alone, Hellboy would be a revelation: the unique visuals and quirky nature of the original are significantly enhanced in this film.
The Golden Army has Hellboy and his associates trying to stop a vengeful Elf Lord, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, who, aside from singing When Will I Be Famous in 80’s duo Bros., appeared in Del Toro’s Blade II) from obtaining a golden crown to bring to life an ancient, indestructible army of mechanical beings, (the titular Golden Army), who will destroy humanity for their usurpation of the Earth over time. Not only that, but Hellboy must also contend with girlfriend Liz’s inexplicable mood swings and issues with personal space, as well as new team leader Johan Krauss (Voice of Seth McFarlane, bodies of John Alexander & James Dodd), a German psychic who exists now in an ectoplasmic (gaseous) state, encased in a suit similar to old deep-sea divers. Krauss is brought on by returning Federal agent Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) to control Hellboy, whose actions during the film’s opening action sequence lead to the exposure of the Bureau For Paranormal Research & Defence. The third member of Hellboy’s team, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, who also performs as other characters through the film) develops an interest in Prince Nuada’s twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who holds the last of the three pieces of the crown, and has a unique physical and mental bond with her brother.
The story seems quite epic, steeped in the shadowy world between our own and the fantastical, the latter being filled with Elves, Goblins and other mythological creations usually the realm of the Brothers Grimm and Tolkein. The use of this other-world adds a genuine charm to the film, although it never becomes fully developed to the point of thorough acceptance. Where Del Toro and his team have aspired to give us a hearty dose of nightmarish oddity, the film seems stuck with an over-abundance of style over substance. The characters, even the main ones, are poorly written and underdeveloped, at least, within the bounds of their cinematic entities. While those more familiar with the comic book series versions will find plenty to pick up on and enjoy, those watching this cold (like me) may find themselves underwhelmed by the story and characters as a whole.
By far the most unforgivable sin is the wafer-thin development of Hellboy and his “new” girlfriend, Liz. The fact that they’re both mutants/inhuman demons makes for very little angst, and whenever they try generating any, the emotion is sucked out of the film. There’s no…. heart to it. Hellboy is a cool character (he rocks out in the original film!), and deserves more attention than he gets here. In The Golden Army, he’s reduced to looking confused a lot, and delivering the phrase “Oh crap!” at various moments preceding action. The sense of whimsy from the previous film is lost amongst an onslaught of stunning effects and other, more bizarre characters. In a weird twist, it’s actually Abe Sapien who draws the best arc of the film: his relationship and emotional development over his bond with Princess Nuala is by far the most genuine story point in the movie. Doug Jones gives (albeit behind a mask of prosthetic make-up) a wonderful, emotive performance that improves on that given in the original Hellboy. Poor Selma Blair is reduced to scowling and glaring throughout the film, resulting in Hellboy looking decidedly confused for much of it in response. Liz’s story arc in the original film, and her relationship with Hellboy himself, are undone here by a script intent on turning them into a bizarre version of The Odd Couple, and making a hash of it in the end. Considering this is the central relationship of the film, it’s strange that Del Toro didn’t try and beef it up a little more.
On a positive note, the production value of Hellboy II is absolutely astounding. The make-up and prosthetic effects are an order of magnitude better than the original film (which I always felt were pretty damn fine anyway!) and the effects and creature creation on display here is astonishing. Every frame of this film sparkles with imagination, from the sets to the puppet-creatures; the world of Hellboy is so real you feel you could reach in and touch it. Deft use of a mix of green-screen, CGI and live action effects create a truly captivating visual landscape, in keeping with Del Toro’s amazing imagination and style.
While the film falters under an poorly developed story, and disjointed characters, there are moments that make your jaw drop. Of note, a sequence with Hellboy battling an enormous forest-giant in a street in New York City, where he must make a decision to kill the last of a species or allow destruction to reign, is handled with an action-film sensibility by Del Toro, although the emotional content of the scene is somewhat perfunctory. Another sequence later in the film, where the team travel to Ireland, looks like it could have been filmed anywhere for all the “Irishness” about it. One character speaks with an Irish lilt, but that’s about it.
Del Toro is able to direct action with the best of them (See Blade II and Mimic for examples of this!) and is equally adept at emotive and character-driven pieces (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone) – here the two opposing forces clash rather than complement, and it’s this middle-ground that Hellboy II tries to straddle…. ultimately, it fails to deliver the emotional impact it had potential to. Visually astonishing, Hellboy II will appeal only to those familiar with the franchise; for the rest of us, it will remain a mildly entertaining oddity.