CAPSULE: Guillermo del Toro makes great horror films like CRONOS and PAN'S LABYRINTH. His graphic novel films are just not his best work. HELLBOY II's visual images are spectacular and the film is full of fights and action, but there is only a bit of plot and that involves an epic fantasy premise that would have taken multiple films to do well. The characters are flat and the film has no center. This is a film to watch, but there is not much to think about. The conclusion holds no surprises. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY has my vote for this year's "WHAT DREAMS MAY COME" Award for the most spectacular visuals in service to the least worthy story. The two films are somewhat different in that WHAT DREAMS MAY COME was saccharine while HELLBOY II has a graphic novel hero involved in a half-hearted attempt at Tolkein-like fantasy. And it pains me to say this, because HELLBOY II is written and directed by Guillermo del Toro whom I consider the best living horror film director. He makes horror films and films based on graphic novels. To my taste he is much better at the former than at the latter. Every film he makes is visually exquisite, but the graphic novel films just do not have the same quality of storytelling that he gets when he creates his own characters. He has a better touch telling stories about vulnerable characters than with invincible ones. Del Toro is probably missing the boat on the character of Hellboy also. The part-human and part-demon Hellboy should be torn between human and demonic urges. That would be a fairly dramatic premise. Instead he comes off as the brawny, master sergeant type, not very complex or very interesting. He is more earthy than most superheroes, but his character could be more engaging than it is.
Hellboy (played by Ron Perlman) is involved here in a Tolkein-like high fantasy. The film suggests there is a war between humans and the mythical creatures like fairies and elves. The adventure is a quest for the pieces of an ancient crown which gives the bearer the power to command a clockwork "golden" army. For most of the film it does not matter what they are looking for, the point is that Hellboy gets into fights to find the thing. The crown is actually the key to the war between humans and the creatures of myth. This is a big concept and one film devoted to the subject might not give del Toro sufficient time to develop the myth of the great crown or the mighty army. But it is not much of even this film. Most of the screen time is spent with Hellboy trying to clobber some great monster or with him sitting around drinking beer after beer and while bonding with his effete fish-man sidekick Abe Sapien. Sapien looks like a fugitive from Rene Laloux's FANTASTIC PLANET. The beer sessions give plenty of opportunity for a product placement of a particular Mexican beer. Hellboy's chief enemy is Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), an evil sorcerer who is tied by an invisible bond to his non-evil sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton). Any injury to one will afflict both. So nobody wants to hurt Nuada for fear of hurting Nuala. The look for Nuada seems borrowed from Michael Moorcock's Elric.
Part of the pleasure of a del Toro film is in looking for allusions and personal touches. Del Toro seems to have two trademarks that hail back to his first feature film CRONOS. He seems to always have visual imagery of clockwork and some of insects. In this film he goes overboard on the clockwork. There is clockwork under the opening titles. The final fight is on a giant clockwork set. There are no insects but there are small crawly things called "tooth fairies" that stand in for the insects. There is a doff of the hat to Stanley Kubrick and John Landis with an allusion to the mythical and non-existent film SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY.
More touches, good and bad: One might expect that after STAR TREK V a director would think twice about having drunken men bond by singing together, but del Toro tries it here and it still does not add much charm. There are also several shots on TV monitors of the Universal horror films that del Toro likes. There are supposedly scenes set at the famous Giant's Causeway. If so the "causeway" remains off-screen. The film does have a giant, but we are not told if it is supposed to be the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill (a.k.a. Finn McCool) who supposedly built the causeway. The credit sequence at the end seems to have subliminal messages different from the credits. Perhaps people will want to rent the film to see the credits run by a little more slowly.
The visuals of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY are a triumph of imagination, but the story is more of a failure. I would rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0411477/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper