Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

If Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a film full of shady moral dilemmas, anyone trying to sum it up is also presented with something of a difficult choice.

On the one hand, it is possible to focus on the mythological architecture of the plot: an exiled elven prince named Nuada (Luke Goss), sickened by the gradual diminution of his people's once proud dominion over Earth, is trying to locate and remobilise a long dormant army of indestructible robots, with only his twin sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) and the supernatural team of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) to stand in his way and save humankind.

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Alternatively, you might prefer to trace the evolving soap operatics amongst the key members of the BPRD: the already fraught relationship between red-skinned demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), further complicated by an unexpected arrival; the emotional confusion of aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) as he falls giddily in love for the first time in 150 years of life; the ongoing attempts by the team's bureaucratic head Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) to replace the late Professor Broom (John Hurt) as an effective handler/father-figure to Hellboy; and Hellboy's locker-room squabbles with new team member Johann Krauss (played by John Alexander and James Krauss, and voiced by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane), a protoplasmic mystic whose disarming efficiency, German provenance and all-round cheeriness prove an irritant combination for the Nazi-hating alpha male manqué from hell.

The truth is that both descriptions prove equally apposite. For Hellboy II: The Golden Army, much like its predecessor Hellboy (2004), offers a seamless merger of colossal narrative and personal drama – and owing to the comically immature conduct of its supernatural beings, far better equipped to kick demonic butt than to cope with life's emotional curve balls, the film is devilishly funny to boot. Guillermo del Toro is often (and rightly) praised for his handling of inventive imagery and grand spectacle - but he also knows how to write characters who, for all their outlandish appearance and otherworldly powers, are recognisably, absurdly, even tragically human.

Cinema is full of monsters, but few in recent memory have been so capable of eliciting our sympathy and understanding – and that includes del Toro's villains as much as his heroes. It is precisely because Hellboy is so clumsily adolescent ("rude, brutish and not very bright," as one character puts it) that he so easily wins over the viewer's affections - but even Prince Nuada is shown to have a just cause, with only his murderous method of pursuing it being called into question – and del Toro transforms the deaths of several powerful antagonists into moments of unexpected beauty, and great pathos. No wonder James Whale's Bride Of Frankenstein (1931) is at one point glimpsed on a television in the background. Yes, here be monsters, but their very monstrousness does not so much cloak as define their humanity.

Indeed, so shady are the boundaries here between human and monster, friend and foe, the political and the personal, that Hellboy and his adopted family must each choose whether their loyalties lie more with their BPRD masters or with their fellow 'freaks' – and as they find themselves insulted, ostracised and hated by the folk that they have been tasked to protect, the super-powered SWAT team shows increasing signs of abandoning the human race altogether, preferring instead to look after its own kind, and its own personal interests.

As an exploration of ensemble otherness, Hellboy II: The Golden Army covers territory already familiar from the X-Men franchise – but the only films out there that can match del Toro's imaginative otherworldly visions are his own previous works. For this is a feast of brilliant colours, extraordinary sets, alien bestiaries and endlessly bizarre details – think the Cantina Bar sequence from Star Wars (1977) inflected with the macabre fever dreams of Hieronymus Bosch and extended over two full hours, and you will not be that far off the carousel of grotesquery on display here. Shifting his emphasis from the tentacular demonology of the first Hellboy film to underworld elves, trolls and fairies (albeit ferocious, tooth-and-bone-devouring fairies) here, del Toro may appear to be giving the world of Middle Earth a dry run before he helms The Hobbit, but viewers will be too busy salivating at the baroque oddity of it all to complain.

Inevitably Hellboy II will be compared to that other great summer sequel blockbuster of 2008, The Dark Knight, but in truth they are like chalk and cheese: Chistopher Nolan's film places itself at the gritty, anthropocentric end of the superhero spectrum, where del Toro's is pure fantasy. And while much has been made of the moral darkness in Nolan's film, rather surprisingly it is Hellboy II that seems to end up having far less faith in humanity's capacity for good.

It is easy to understand such misanthropy: after all, where is the justice in a world that posthumously fetes Heath Ledger for his furious incarnation of the Joker, while simultaneously ignoring Ron Perlman for a performance that is every bit as committed, every bit as believable, and every bit as blackly funny? Hellboy may wear heavy make-up, he may be ugly, he may even be a force of nature – but unlike the Joker, he actually develops as a character. In a fairer world, these two might at least split the Oscar – but here's betting we humans do not even let Perlman get a look in. So it is no surprise that the underappreciated demon turns his back on us – hell, he may even get his revenge in what promises to be a trilogy closer of apocalyptic proportions.

Reviewed on: 18 Aug 2008
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Hellboy II: The Golden Army packshot
Hellboy confronts an Elven prince determined to raise an ancient army and destroy the world of men; and has domestic troubles to deal with at the same time.
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Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writer: Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola, based upon the Dark Horse comic book by Mike Mignola.

Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, John Alexander, James Dodd, Seth MacFarlane, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hurt, Brian Steele, Andrew Hefler, Ivan Kamaras, Mike Kelly, Jeremy Zimmerman, Santiago Segura, Roy Dotrice, Aidan Cook, Jeanne Mockford

Year: 2008

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, Germany

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