2008 // USA - Germany // Guillermo del Toro // July 12, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - With Hellboy II: The Golden Army, director Guillermo del Toro—that Mexican gothic with a boundless sympathy for monsters and a gluttony for visual spectacle—returns to Mike Mignola's fantasy comic-verse in a shower of goblin sparks. In visiting the demonic well once again, del Toro perhaps inevitably fails to capture the freshness that made the first outing such a pleasure. In Hellboy, the originality of the film's blend of otherworldly design, authentic pathos, and cartoon wit was central to its appeal. The Golden Army compensates for its familiar territory by emphasizing the design—ramping it up, in fact, to Oz-esque levels. The heart and the laughs are still there, but del Toro seems most intent on wonder. It's a credit to his skill, then, that The Golden Army engages despite fiddling with the delicate balance of the first film. Moreover, the film adeptly fulfills the purpose that all fantasy sequels should at minimum fulfill: moving its world forward, in terms of plot, themes, and mythic richness.
Mignola's comics borrow extensively from mythology, urban legend, and literature, while refusing to be constrained by any particular cosmology. As such, we have Hellboy (Ron Perlman), an unstoppable demon warrior sired in the Inferno, who partners with psychic fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) to battle the things that go bump in the night on behalf of Uncle Sam. Where the plot of the first Hellboy concerned Nazi conspiracies and Lovecraftian elder gods, The Golden Army is a tale of faeries gone bad. del Toro delivers the background in a prologue-flashback, where Professor Broom (John Hurt in an appreciated cameo) reads a bedtime story to a young Hellboy on Christmas Eve. Broom's tale, animated in delightful stop-motion, describes an ancient war between humankind and the elves, goblins, and ogres of the wilds. To aid the faerie side, the goblins constructed a clockwork legion—the titular Golden Army—that laid waste to the humans. Despite the decisive victory, the elf king Balor, weary of bloodshed, accepted a truce from the defeated humans. The crown that controlled the automaton horde was broken, and a fragment given to the humans to ensure the peace.
In the modern day, the strange romance between Hellboy and Liz is maturing into surprisingly normal relationship territory: bickering, negligence, and resentment. Marital difficulties are the least of their worries, however. It seems that King Balor's son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) is fed up with humanity's pillaging of nature and its waning belief in monsters. He is preparing to break the truce and command the Golden Army once again, in defiance of his father and sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton). Naturally, government minder Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) dispatches Hellboy and his allies to stop Nuada. Unfortunately, not only is the Prince a powerful fey champion in his own right—he single-handedly slices his way through the King's honor guard—but he also commands a host of strange creatures. There are the insectoid tooth-fairies, which, true to their name, have a voracious appetite for teeth; the tusked ogre Mr. Wink, whose can hurl his mechanical fist on a great chain; and a forest behemoth, all writhing vines and bristling clover, birthed from what appears to be a Lima bean. Hellboy's team—particularly a besotted Abe—ally with the Princess, and they race from one fantasy action set piece to another to recover the crown fragments and stop the Prince. Along the way, the heroes get a new commander, Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane), a fussy German scientist in what appears to be a vintage cosmonaut suit. This strange attire is actually a practical consideration, as Krauss is composed entirely of white mist.
It's a stretch to say that these bizarre and marvelous sights could only spring from the minds of Mignola and del Toro, but few artists revel in them with such eerie familiarity. Perhaps this is why the "funny-pages gothic" tone of both Hellboy films comes across with such giddy precision. The badass gallows humor of the franchise rests to some extent on the notion that slaying monsters is all in a day's work. It's a tricky tap dance—wonder and terror that seem commonplace—but del Toro is up to the task. This, after all, is the man who gave us the hilarious, horrifying Blade II, a better film by miles than any vampire sequel had a right to be. With The Golden Army, the director again demonstrates his enduring talent for juggling slapstick and quips alongside sweetness and sorrow. Credit is due del Toro for pulling it all together, but production designer Stephen Scott's eye for grotesque beauty is the key to this film's memorable look. His vision renders The Golden Army as the director's wildest, weirdest fantasy to date.
There are so many unbelievable sights at every turn that del Toro occasionally risks neglecting the sincere emotional punch that a Hellboy film needs. As a result, The Golden Army never quite achieves the first chapter's remarkable fusion of tone. Still, the filmmakers deserve kudos for advancing the characters in unexpected ways. Now that Hellboy and Liz are sharing a life (and a bed), they start taking each other for granted and engaging in little deceptions. As the anxious, smoldering Liz, Blair was one of the focuses of Hellboy, but she gets shuffled to the background a bit during this outing in favor of the previously neglected Abe. A scene where Hellboy and Abe get hammered on Mexican beer and belt love songs is played for broad comedy, but to the credit of del Toro and the performers, it will also have a familiar sting of romantic woe for many viewers.
The scene is typical of how The Golden Army finds the crucial emotional upwellings within its curious blend of action-fantasy-horror. The film isn't afraid to allow its characters to change. They bump into new conflicts and anxieties, rather than recycling tropes from the previous film. The sequel also exhibits a satisfying recognition of Mignola's broader multi-mythic world, even as it hints at things yet to come. Consider a scene where Princess Nuala speaks Hellboy's true demon name and demands that his status as an infernal noble be recognized under faerie law. (Therefore we see in Hellboy and Prince Nuada's duels the battle between two mythological systems: one Catholic, one pagan.) Or consider a chilling sequence where Liz must confront Death itself and demonstrate her devotion to Hellboy, in a nifty reversal of a scene from the previous film.
If The Golden Army has a structural flaw, it's one of pacing. The action sequences feel both a little obligatory and a little too long. While the sight of tooth-fairies and ogres and clockwork soldiers is never boring, there's a distressing... ordinariness to all the brawls between Hellboy and the film's folklore beasties. The outcome of these fights is mostly never in doubt, and while del Toro makes the action fun, it sometimes feels like mere filler before he reveals a new, even more wondrous terror. That said, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is the satisfying sort of sequel that consistently raises the stakes. For del Toro, it solidifies his reputation as one of the world's most imaginative and astute fantasy filmmakers. For the wider world of Hellboy, The Golden Army opens the door to reveal a vista more glorious, more intricate, and far darker than we dreamed.