Hellboy 2 is that good

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
United States, 2008

Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro
Written By: Guillermo Del Toro & Mike Mignola
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hurt, Seth MacFarlane
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language
4 out of 5 stars

I’m getting tired of the marketing hook adorning trailers and television spots that reads “From Visionary Filmmaker [insert latest flavor of the week here].” While Wanted was a giddy testosterone fest that proudly flipped Physics the bird, director Timur Bekmambetov did not warrant the ‘Visionary’ label that Universal seemed determined to bestow him with.

Enter Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Universal’s 3rd foray into comic book adaptations this summer (following Wanted and The Incredible Hulk), and once again the big wigs with the purse strings are slapping ‘Visionary Filmmaker’ over every piece of marketing fluff they can generate – posters, trailers, websites, everything. They all conspicuously display that moniker which is essentially PC speak for ‘Cinematic God.’ The only difference this time is that director Guillermo Del Toro utterly deserves it.

Hellboy 2 isn’t so much a comic book movie as it is a canvas upon which Del Toro can apply his (apparently) limitless imagination. I’m familiar enough with the comics to know that half of the visual inventions that Del Toro saturates his film with have little precedent within Mike Mignola’s original creation. The Mexican director remains true to the source material (Mignola shares a writing credit with him) but coats layer upon layer of his own ingenious characters and contraptions and creatures (oh my!) on top. Around every corner is something new and brilliant – trolls and ancient weapons and earth elementals and stone golems and steampunk armies and angels of death and…the list is endless. Each frame is lovingly packed to the brim with clever asides and meticulous flourishes of fantasy, so much so that blinking means missing out on a score of marvelous details.

I recently began avoiding trailers for films I know I’m going to see (this results in some comical behavior, such as plugging my ears and sticking my head between my legs in theaters) and I am incredibly thankful that I did so with Hellboy 2. None of the surprises were ruined by months of advertising overload, and every revelation was just that – a revelation, and not a tick on a mental checklist of scenes from the trailer. If ever there was a film to avoid the marketing for, this is it, although that is likely an impossibility for anyone reading this.

Part of Del Toro’s effectiveness stems from his reliance upon old school methods of cinematic wizardry like makeup, prosthetics, and puppetry. There is, to be sure, an abundance of CGI, but Del Toro always favors tactile creations when possible, turning only to computers when absolutely necessary. His Troll Market recalls the wide-eyed wonder of Blade Runner’s rain swept neon-lit street markets or Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley or (especially so) Star Wars’ legendary Tatooine cantina. Jam packed with fairy creatures of every conceivable shape and size and texture, but nary a computer generated one among them (granted, I may have missed something), you wish you had an in-theater pause button so you could stop and drink in every ounce of Del Toro’s magic. His work here recalls the genius of Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) or Jim Henson or, dare I say it, early George Lucas before he developed his all-consuming green screen fetish. At the expense of sounding like a Universal shill, you’re watching a Visionary Filmmaker at work.

I realize I have neglected to mention the story so far, which is partially intentional. While thoroughly acceptable and mostly entertaining, Hellboy 2 hits most of the standard superhero plot beats that we’ve come to expect and won’t rock your socks emotionally. There is the ancient foe determined to rise up and destroy the human race (ala Del Toro’s own Blade II), themes of alienation and questions of “Do I really belong?” (X-Men), and romantic difficulties of the superpowered variety (Spiderman 2). The second act in particular is bogged down with where-is-this-thing-going script problems, and includes a movie convention that 1) I wish would be retired permanently and 2) would have believed to have been beneath Del Toro: the bad pop song montage. Some John Mayer-esque crooner sings about “being a freak just like me” while Hellboy broods in the shower, and the result is so bad I wonder if it wasn’t intended as parody (I hope so, I truly do).

I will say that the mythology heavy prologue, which is usually an excuse for directors to show off their lackluster storytelling skills (see the voice over-gimped intros to The 13th Warrior and Jumper for examples of this), is adeptly handled by Del Toro here. A pre-teen Hellboy is up past his bedtime watching what all little boys in the mid-fifties watched, Howdy Doody. His adopted father (played by an always welcome John Hurt), at the little red demon’s insistence, tells him the story of an ancient war between fairy folk and humans that resulted in the creation of the Golden Army. Rather than being an obligatory piece of dry exposition, Del Toro approaches it from the perspective of Hellboy’s young imagination, fashioning the sequences in the vein of – what else – Howdy Doody. The effect is splendid, a kind of nostalgic, marionette populated fairy tale that sparkles with charm, and just one more indication of Del Toro’s bottomless creativity.

Ron Perlman, as in the first film, is perfectly devil-may-care as Hellboy, shooting off cheeky one liners from his cigar-toting mouth and concussive projectiles from ridiculously oversized weaponry with equal abandon. The supporting cast are all colorful and unique and fully realized, from Jeffrey Tambor’s (Arrested Development) governmental overseer who pops Rolaids like candy from the stress of YouTubed appearances of Hellboy, to Selma Blair as the sweet, pyrokinetic love interest, to Seth MacFarlane (the creator and vocal virtuoso behind Family Guy) providing the voice for the deliciously wacky Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic diving suit who embodies Van Helsing and Einstein in equal measures.

Of special note, however, is Doug Jones, who does triple duty as Abraham Sapien (Hellboy’s aquatic sidekick), the Chamberlain, and the Angel of Death. Known almost entirely for his work underneath layers of prosthetics (he played both the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth), Jones is an actor who can communicate complex emotions through the simplest of movements (his only equal is Andy Serkis, the mo-cap genius behind Gollum). Has any actor ever been able to do so much with only their fingers?

Pan’s Labyrinth, while being an extraordinary accomplishment (and, incidentally, the film that earned Del Toro enough cache to make this film), left me cold inside. I wasn’t ready to sing the praise of Guillermo like the rest of the cinematic community, but I did respect his talent from afar. While Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is not the equal of Labyrinth in terms of storytelling or emotional complexity, it has effortlessly convinced me that Del Toro is one of the most talented directors working today. Visionary Filmmaker? Hell yeah. Pardon me while I go purchase another ticket so I can catch all the things I missed the first time around.

About the Author:
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for MovieZeal.com. Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.