July 8, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (7/8/08)

Lettergrade: A-

I didn't like the first Hellboy. In fact, I've tried to watch it several times now and have always been bored out of my fucking mind. I caught an advanced screening of Hellboy II: The Golden Army this week, however, and thought it is a vast improvement over the first, to say nothing of an excellent dark fantasy in its own right.

In the interim between the two Hellboys, director Guillermo del Toro made the acclaimed Pan's Labrynth which, in addition to sucking up awards like a sorority girl during Mardi Gras, won him the freedom to make his next picture pretty much as he pleased. Despite offers to direct Harry Potter 6, I Am Legend, and all other kinds of fantasy pictures, he curiously chose to continue with this series. I must say I didn't understand why until I saw how the movie expands upon and moves away from the material he was working with in the first.

The basic scenario is largely in line with what I remember from that first picture: Hellboy, the ex-pat spawn of of Satan (or something), is fated to bring to about the destruction of the Earth someday. Fortunately, until that happens he's agreed to work for the U.S. Government in a division called the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development ("the BPRD"). Along with other colorful characters like the amphibious Abe Sapien and Hellboy's girlfriend Liz, played by Selma Blair, who can burst into flames at will (sort of like one of the guys from X-Men), the BPRD's purpose is vaguely like that of the Ghostbusters and the Men In Black: They show up when there's been some kind of paranormal disturbance and get everyone's shit in order.

This time, they're trying to stop the androgynous Prince Nuada (played by Luke Goss, although it looks a hell of a lot like Jake Busey under that make-up) from reawakening the fabled "Golden Army" and thus starting a war between the Earth's monsters and humans (in which the human's would likely get their asses handed to them). Nuada himself, looking strongly like a rejected villain from Legend or The Dark Crystal, isn't a terribly interesting bad guy, but the way in which he antagonizes Hellboy for being shunned by both the human and the supernatural worlds gives the movie a lot of unexpected poignancy. He also has a twin sister, Princess Nuala (played by Anna Walton, although I'd swear it's Calista Flockhart), who kindly informs our heroes of the details of the plot in addition to providing a love-interest for Abe. It chills me to the bone to think about a amphibious fish-man trying to make dirty love to a pasty white, anorexic tree-princess, but that's a subject for another essay.

One thing that makes Hellboy II: The Golden Compass really stand out from similar pictures these days is the heavy emphasis on guys-in-suits and puppets. It's so nice to see a scene in a movie where everyone was actually on set interacting, be they latex-clad or not. As in Pan's Labrynth, which feels more like a direct predecessor to this movie than the first Hellboy does, the creatures are unique and imaginative with a lot of personality. There's probably something deeply symbolic in how several of del Toro's creations do not have eyes where traditional beings tend to have them, but I'll be fucked if I know what it is.

The other wonderful emphasis is on elaborate stunt work and well-choreographed fight scenes. There are plenty of sequences where even though we know we're looking at a dude in a mask, he's still doing something that appears incredibly difficult and impressive. I give del Toro a lot of credit for understanding that watching a stuntman in a suit is way more effective than seeing a thousand CG monsters fighting a thousand other CG monsters... the route that most of these movies seem to take.

In fact, I think that sentiment applies to much of what I really liked about this picture. Del Toro went in a very old-school direction with pretty much every aspect of the production. So old school, in fact, that the sets, the monsters, even the lush score by Danny Elfman are brimming with unbridled reverence for the classic Ray Harryhausen pictures of eld. Only the most astute of film nerds will be able to pick up on all the references to Jason And The Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, among others. Hellboy II: The Golden Shower's story, while imaginative, doesn't reinvent the wheel in terms of fantasy-picture plotting, but that's not what del Toro is trying to do anyway. Instead, it is an imaginative revival of that kind of filmmaking, which at the same time manages to be darkly beautiful, and in a very unique way, memorably haunting.

This summer's array of popcorn flicks promised to harken back to my movie-loving youth by producing sequels to long-dormant franchises (Indiana Jones) and offering new if underwhelming spins on tried and true material (Speed Racer and The Incredible Hulk). Leave it to a sequel to a movie I didn't even like in the first place, however, to manage to finally do what those movies could not.

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