Hellboy II: The Golden Army

dir: Guillermo Del Toro
[img_assist|nid=66|title=Methinks he's overcompensating for something|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=300]
I usually give Del Toro respect for his Spanish films which have all been great (Cronos, Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), and derision for his Hollywood flicks (Blade II, the first Hellboy). Perhaps I’m feeling more forgiving, or perhaps Del Toro is starting to meld the two ways of working into a workable whole.

Whatever the reason, or whatever is really going on, I surprised myself by enjoying Hellboy II: The Golden Army much more than I thought I would. The main reason I’m surprised is that I really didn’t get into the first Hellboy, and that one of the main reasons is something that’s carried over to this sequel.

I’m also a bit burned out by the whole comic book adaptation thing, and Hellboy is nothing if not a comic book property.

Hellboy (played, I guess, by Ron Perlman) is an actual demon, snatched from the gates of hell by a kindly scientist (John Hurt) when still a baby hellspawn. He grows up to love and protect humanity whilst fighting against supernatural shenanigans that threaten humankind.

He is bright red, with ground-down horns, a very large fist, styles his hair like a samurai, smokes cigars and loves kittens. And he loves to fight.

So yes, he is perfect comic book fodder. There’s not much other depth to it apart from its perfect crystallisation of the nature-nurture argument, and is mostly an excuse for having a big red guy fuck shit up old school. Supernatural shit at that.

The biggest problem I’ve had with Del Toro’s films in English is that they’re pretty juvenile. Because of the strong contrast between the complexity of his better films in Spanish, I have to believe that he feels his Hollywood bill paying films need to be monstrously dumbed down. With the Hellboy adaptations, apart from the juvenile storytelling, the single biggest problem for me has been how they put the character together.

I mean the actual physical character trying to act and deliver lines. I love Ron Perlman, but clearly he can’t do much under layers and layers of red latex, to the point where he can’t even speak. He literally can’t deliver the lines. The mouth can’t move to form the goddamn lines. They compensate by filming him from the side, from the back, from any goddamn angle so that they don’t have to admit that he’s not actually talking.

In the realm of cinematic wizardry, we accept a lot of stuff that our disbelief doesn’t generally allow, because we’ve become accustomed to it. I have far more difficulty accepting a character that clearly can’t talk, despite having a human in the ‘suit’, than I do with computer generated characters. I know that dubbing, looping, all sorts of stuff occurs to get something to the big screen, but when I’m continually reminded of the fact (as in, I can’t forget about it), then it takes me out of the story to a profound degree.

It’s the main thing that distracted me in the first flick, apart from the dumb plot and strange dialogue. Here, though, Del Toro aims for something far more complicated and bigger, conceptually, I still never forget that Big Red can’t talk.

Still, I managed to overcome that fact and enjoy this strange flick. The plot’s not much to speak of, but it is a visually splendid trip, and has some great ideas trapped underneath an adolescent story.

You get the feeling like the film wants to be an R-Rated flick, but it’s obligated to be PG because of the money involved. Then again, Lord of the Rings was mostly PG, and it didn’t miss out on any ticket sales.

Apparently, thousands of years ago, elves, humans and goblins were fighting nasty wars where people were getting horribly slaughtered. Apparently, the elf king asked a goblin smith to construct a magical army of mechanical constructs who could slaughter things even better than before. Control of this army was given to the elf king, his elf son and his elf daughter.

Thousands of years later, as in, in contemporary times, the elf Prince (Luke Goss) wants to get control of this so-called Golden Army in order to slaughter humanity.

Hellboy gets involved in this conflict because the government department that both controls him and needs his help against supernatural problems sends him out to deal with stuff when the guests at an auction house get slaughtered by fairies.

Yes, fairies. Evil fairies.

A trip to the troll market underneath the Brooklyn Bridge leads Big Red and his people; a fiery pyromaniac (Selma Blair), an amphibian guy (Doug Jones) and a German ectoplasmic ghost in a suit, into a battle to save the World! The Whole World! Not just the wealthy parts of it.

The plot doesn’t make much sense to me, but it doesn’t matter. There is visual stuff aplenty to feast one’s eyes upon, which people who’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth (predominately the fantastical bits, not the fascist Captain brutalising people bits), not least of which is the battle with a forest god (!), the denizens of the troll market, the amazing Golden Army itself, and fantasy choreographed fights worthy of something out of a Hong Kong film (with money to burn).

And the Angel of Death is… is… pretty amazing.

It looks great, it’s well put together, and it did inspire in me a fair few moments of being awe-dumbstruck. Especially the (inexplicable) bit with the forest god, and with a gun battle/baby protection bit worthy of Hard Boiled.

The problem is that the flick slows down every now and then under the weight of turgid scenes of what passes for melodrama in this flick that really don’t go anywhere. The scenes between Hellboy and Pyro Girl fighting about their relationship are excruciating. Flaming Girl Liz (it doesn’t help that Selma Blair looks like she is very worn out) stressing about “the future” do not add dramatic depth to her character or to the flick: they just make you grind your teeth. Scenes where Red and the aquatic guy pretend to get drunk are amusing at first and then downright idiotic.

But I know what Del Toro was trying to do. He’s trying to keep things light but meaningful at the same time. Problem is, it just doesn’t work. It’s only entertaining when it’s moving. Standing still, all you can see is the metaphorical wires, and all you can do is wonder when the next action set piece is going to start.

If I want melodrama I’ll watch a Mexican soap opera. If I want a relationship flick I’ll watch a John Cassavettes or Claude Chabrol flick. Shit, even Woody Allen for crying out loud.

The elements don’t really cohere, but I didn’t mind as much this time. I predominantly think that Del Toro makes his Hollywood flicks deliberately in a manner to showcase what he can do visually in order to get more money for future projects. If he ends up directing The Hobbit as is mooted, then it makes perfect sense. The best aspects of Hellboy II look like they could have taken place in a nastier, dirtier Lord of the Rings flick, to everyone’s credit.

There really aren’t an abundance of big budget fantasy flicks, despite appearances, these days. Most of them are embarrassing and have cheesy budgets to go with their cheesy effects. The rest are all superhero flicks made with merchandising rights in mind. Yes, Hellboy is a comic book property, but I do feel that they were going for something bigger and eclectic here at the same time, even if most of the dialogue really never works.

At the very least, they get the look and the scale right. Goddamn, do they get it right. All they need is a lead who can talk

7 times I could never forget that Luke Goss, the villain here, used to be in boy band Bros out of 10

“It is for you to decide. It is all the same to me, my heart is filled with dust and sand. But you should know, it is his destiny to bring about the destruction of the Earth... not now, not tomorrow but soon enough. Knowing that, you still want him to live?” – Hellboy II: The Golden Army