Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army Review

Hellboy II tells the continued adventure of Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Director Guillermo del Toro returns to the helm as Hellboy and friends are now tasked with preventing the angry supernatural Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) from exacting vengeance on humanity (by awakening the titular Golden Army) for our breach of an old human-fantasy creature treaty with our disregard for the environment.

For my money Guillermo del Toro is as brilliant a fantasy director as there is today and I saw with certainty that this film (and its underrated predecessor) would have been nothing short of disastrous in the hands of a lesser auteur. Del Toro opens the film during the Second World War on Christmas Eve as Hellboy is told the bedtime story of the Golden Army by his "father" (John Hurt reprising his role from the first film), a story of course which will inevitably come into play later in the film. In the hands of a lesser director this scene, there is something quite absurd about a juvenile red demon at a small World War II base hearing a bedtime story, the film could have fallen apart in the first few minutes. Del Toro has a wonderful touch, however, with his actors and in the wonderful way he integrates fantasy and reality (not just in this series but in other films like Pan's Labyrinth, one of the best films of the decade, The Devil's Backbone and the underrated Blade II) which makes the whole thing tenable.

The actors, in costume or not, are all magnificently cast and play their roles with just the right mix of humor and gravity. As far as I'm concerned Ron Perlman was born to play this role, his red demon with a love for kittens and Baby Ruth bars is as human and empathetic as any on screen this past summer. There's something deeply sympathetic, and believable in the way Perlman and del Toro present it, about Hellboy downing a beer in the shower after a fight with his girlfriend. I think particular note should be given to Anna Walton and Doug Jones. Doug Jones is an incredible physical actor who previously had been limited to acting only behind a creature suit. With great success Jones played most of the creatures in del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth Walton, but other actors did the voice work. Likewise in the first Hellboy and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer Jones did great physical work only to be voice dubbed over (by David Hyde Pierce and Laurence Fishburne respectively). Here Jones finally gets to voice his own character and, no disrespect to Pierce who did fine voice work in the first film, he does a phenomenal job. Beyond that Jones brings an unbelievable otherworldly quality to his movements that make Abe Sapien seem both strangely alien but also compelling organic. Walton plays the sister of Luke Goss' Prince Nuada, Princess Nuala who becomes a love interest for Jones' Abe. Together they have such sweet chemistry... I have to say I'm rather stunned that my two favorite love stories this year involve the relationships of two robots (Wall-E) and of a fish-man and a golden princess.

Throughout the film del Toro crates masterful scenes for his characters. In an incredibly well designed homage to the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, our heroes visit a fantastical marketplace (located, of all places, under the Brooklyn Bridge). The entire segment is a feast for the eyes and a tribute to the unbelievable costume, CGI and make-up work on display in the film. Another great scene, which I can't imagine anyone but del Toro pulling off, has Perlman and Jones drunkenly singing about the trials of love. Del Toro, and his DP Guillermo Navarro, have an absolute gift for crafting incredible imagery which is on display at no moment more than when Hellboy and crew walk through the shimmering aftermath of Hellby's battle with a plant monster. Breathtaking stuff!

I found the film to have two weak aspects of note. The first is the performance of Luke Goss. Compared to Perlman, Jones and Walton, Goss really fails to bring the same sort of emotion and believability to his role as the other actors buried in costume. The other weak aspect is actually the film's climax. Much like in the first film's climax, del Toro seems to lose his characters a bit as the action really picks up. Considering what a masterful job del Toro has done throughout the rest of the film it is surprising to see the film's penultimate moment devolve into a bombastic mix of stunts and CGI. All this is not to say the climax is poorly done, just that it's a step down from the greatness of the rest of the film.

Overall Score: 8/10

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