In a year of British super spies
, armor suit wearing millionaires
and knights of the decidedly dark variety
, trust Guillermo del Toro and his little bag of monsters to be the most charming. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is dark, funny, packed with fantastic creatures, and extremely full of heart. It's a glorious culmination of all his efforts to bring a fantastic world to life, which is as much del Toro as it is Mike Mignola.
This is an old school monster action movie seen through the eyes of the mad genius of del Toro and his team, and brought to life in the most beautiful emotional landscape. While the first Hellboy
was a revelation in honest filmmaking, this is filled to the gills with the most imagination you will see in a major studio action film this year. It's one of the very rare films that remind you of old school adventuring, of traveling to exotic and dangerous places, and of stunning creature designs.
A stylistic introduction fills us in - many years ago a pact was made between men and the underground magical kingdom which put an end to incursions and bloodshed. After many thousands of years, the son of the king who made the pact decides that mankind's misuse of the Earth and incursions into their space has gone on too long, and he wants to unleash the Golden Army, giant mechanical soldiers controlled by whoever wears the golden crown, to wreak havoc on to humans.
As he begins looking for the three pieces of the crown, Prince Nauda (Luke Goss) attracts the attention of BPRD, Hellboy's team of paranormal investigators, and things get exciting. Before the story starts in earnest, though, we see the prince go about his work and realize his frustration of having lived underground in a world increasingly being poisoned and lost by humankind's excesses. Beautifully understated design punctuates his actual actions, and we realize that del Toro himself is not too far down the line in support of the monsters.
While the film is called Hellboy, it remains a film about an ensemble cast - the crew of BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense). As we are introduced to the world of monsters and freak occurrences that they inhabit via a quick introduction as a chat between empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and chief Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), it sets the tone for the delightfully dark and twisted humor in store for us.
When the whole team is thrown together - along with fire girl Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and gas man in a suit Johann Krauss (Seth McFarlane) - del Toro kicks it up a notch, and while Hellboy is till the lead faced with the most interesting questions throughout the film, the chemistry between the rest of the team takes us from setpiece to setpiece like a magical uncle holding the hands of delighted children.
While this one is still a legitimate sequel, it is so much more than the last film that it leaves that gloriously faithful movie way behind. Del Toro has moved forward in all respects with this film, making it a vision that is out and out his, from character design to thematic settings to the gorgeous backgrounds. Something I could have spent the entire review talking about - the Troll Market - is emblematic of the wonderful imagination at work here, and this is a spiritual successor to Pan's Labyrinth than Hellboy the first.
The beauty of this whole vision is that even the action is completely meaningful. While (just as a major action film should) it moves from one breathtaking action setpiece to another, the film also ties the meaning of the action to the themes of the film. One of the sequences ends in such poignant moments of loss of wonder and beauty that you
almost side with the monsters.
However, the movie's core is not the exemplarily staged action, but the characters populating them. Del Toro makes his characters, makeup, CGI and all, real people. These are not just heroes of a film, they are conflicted people, who when offered the chance to save the world or their loved one, do not wear a grim expression and save the world. They stand conflicted as real people would. Hellboy's quest for acceptance and belonging comes to a beautiful ending, but each hurtle through to the next action setpiece makes him long for that very same acceptance.
It's a great time at the talkies, and a throwback to the swashbuckling era of unbridled imagination and fascinating creatures and high adventure. The man who made Pan's Labyrinth has been given free rein here, and he takes the opportunity to give us the best superhero film this year. I admit I might be a little biased towards this understated gem of a film, but you owe it to yourself to go check it out and gleefully clap as the final song rolls in.