Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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Double Negative/Universal Studios
Guillermo del Toro/United States 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army lacks the historical resonance and powerful emotional core of Pan’s Labyrinth, writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s recent masterpiece, but only because of some natural constraints. After all, this is a summer blockbuster hopeful and the second movie in a franchise centered on a one-liner dropping, paranormal butt-kicking comic-book character. Given that format the filmmaker could not have conceivably put forth quite so unique and intensely personal a vision, but the degree of imagination poured into the non-stop parade of visual wonders on display throughout Hellboy II rivals that present in every frame of its maker’s Oscar-nominated predecessor.

The movie takes place in a New York City in which magical worlds lie just beneath the surface. An ancient kingdom holds court in an abandoned rail yard and a busy troll market filled with a profusion of creatures, and the items they’re hawking can be found beyond ordinary walls. As the film opens, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, operating out of the exceptionally nondescript environs of Trenton, N.J., sends its top-field agents into this milieu to investigate a mysterious mass murder and the theft of an ancient golden crown. The events are connected to an ancient struggle between humans and fantastical creatures led by a prince (Luke Goss) bent on taking over the world by gaining control of the Golden Army, a collection of colossal, violent robots. Over the course of the film, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), his girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Washington man Johann Kraus (James Dodd and the voice of Seth MacFarlane) oppose the prince’s efforts.

The story works well but largely functions as the facilitator of what makes the picture truly special: Del Toro’s remarkable compositions and seamless blending of CGI and reality. Working with favorite cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, the filmmaker skillfully blends close-up renderings of action set pieces with more classical compositions. The camera often pulls back from its more intimate perspectives to reveal the scope and size of Hellboy’s world. For example, a long push-out reveals legions of Golden Army robots and pans through the aforementioned troll market show off a rich blend of imagined figures at work and play. The Bureau’s headquarters – a combination of warm, carpeted interiors with ceiling high shelves of leather bound books and sterile, metallic business rooms – proves as it did the first time around a perfect showcase for the talents of production designer Stephen Scott. Put simply, the movie is a pleasure to observe, offering a visual depth rarely seen in this season of fast, jarring cuts and extreme close-ups.

Also, del Toro’s screenplay smartly avoids burdening Hellboy with moments of great existential angst. That sort of thing might work for some superheroes, but his appeal largely lies in his sheer, tough guy invincibility and knack for biting one-liners. As portrayed by Perlman, he’s not as deep of a character as one might expect from someone trying to fit into the real world while cursed with red skin, horns, a tail and a giant fist claw. Still, the contradictory combination of Hellboy’s regular-guy demeanor and established mystical importance makes it easy to empathize with him. Leave aside his otherworldly appearance and he’s a working-class, everyday Joe given some extraordinary responsibilities, an inherently relatable predicament. The main character’s grounded persona meshes so perfectly with the director’s visionary approach that Hellboy II: The Golden Army – the more polished and entertaining of the two Hellboy films – proves that rarest of breeds: a wholly satisfying sequel.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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