HELLBOY II – THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008) : G.Del Toro : 6/10

                                            

IN A NUTSHELL : Great monsters – if only the plot were anything like so original and bold…

According to Guillermo Del Toro, "the worst thing in designing a monster is just referencing other movies." His own career has been marked by a striking originality when it comes to monster-making – most memorably The Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth. And that's certainly the case with his followup Hellboy II – The Golden Army, which often like a wildly elaborate pretext and showcase for the creatures forged in the more baroque recesses of the writer/director's fervid subconscious.
   A sequel to the modestly successful Hellboy from summer 2004 – in one sense this is the most "Olympian" of movie-franchises - The Golden Army (story co-devised by Mike Mignola, who wrote the graphic novels which first introduced the main character) doesn't waste many of its 120 minutes on the tedious business of exposition: those who didn't catch the first picture will just have to get along as best they can. Suffice to say that once again we're taken deep inside the USA's ultra-secret (and presumably fictional) Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) which, although under the nominal control of the schlubby civil-servant Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), employs some decidedly exotic personnel. 
   Most prominently: Hellboy (Ron Perlman, near-unrecognisable under latex), an outsize, humanoid, wisecracking, cigar-chomping, cat-loving, American-accented demon – conjured forth by the Nazis in 1944 but quickly recruited by the Allies – sporting red skin, red (filed-down) horns and red tail. His girlfriend is the normal-looking Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a somewhat tempestuous lass with a trendily assymetrical bob who can summon impressive pyro-kinetic powers at will; his best pal is a brainbox, blue-hued humanoid-amphibian, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones).
    The trio investigate all manner of supernatural phenomena: while their unusual looks and/or talents ensure that we're much closer to X-Men than X-Files, there's a comic slant to the Hellboy movies' freewheeling juxtaposition of the out-there/outre and the humdrum/everyday that's closer to Men In Black. Indeed, whereas I described the first movie as "H P Lovecraft meets the X-Men" this time around it's more a case of 'Lord Dunsany goes to The Office': Dunsany-style Celtic/Gaelic lore provides the mythos, while workplace frictions and office-politics provide the real-world subtext (not for nothing is the picture's tagline 'Saving the world is a hell of a job.')
  There's even that ancient standby of the office-politics comedy, the Tough New Boss. Of course, this being Hellboy, he isn't just a rules-istrules German, he's also ectoplasmic cloud of quasi-living matter walking around in what looks like an old-school diving-suit: Johan Krauss, "acted" by James Dodd and John Alexander, and (amusingly) voiced by (of all people), The Family Guy's creator Seth MacFarlane. While the gaseous-phantasmic Krauss isn't exactly the most eyepopping presence on view it's nevertheless encouraging to hear that Del Toro has promised any Hellboy III will do for Krauss what II does for Sapien in terms of character-development.
   Sapien falls in love with the human-sized elf Princess Nuala (Anna Walton, channelling Romana II) – somewhat tricky given that Nuala's brother Nuada (Luke Goss, channelling his own performance from Del Toro's Blade II) has lost patience with the centuries-old secret truce between the earth's various inhabitants and embarked upon a war against humanity.
   This involves reawakening the 4,900-strong metallic horde of the picture's title: ginormous, long-dormant warrior-robots who look like the bastard offspring of The Iron Giant and the Transformers. The Golden Army can only be re-invigorated by an individual wearing a particular magical crown – which has long since been separated into three segments – so long as that individual is of suitably royal descent (and Hellboy, despite his ordinary-joe persona, does – somewhat disappointingly – turn out to have blue blood beneath his vermilion epidermis.)
     It's Nuada's quest to reconstitute the crown – and the attempts by the BPRD, aided by Nuala, to stop him – which provides most of the slam-bang, boom-and-bluster, CGI-heavy plot. And of course it's giving nothing away to say that, despite various folk doomily warning that "The Golden Army … must … not … awaken!", this is exactly what transpires in the grandiose climax – all of which unfolds, bizarrely enough, in Northern Ireland, whose rolling greenery and (fictional) goblin denizen enables Del Toro to stage what's in effect a dry run for his upcoming pair of Hobbit movies.
   In fact, there are numerous – obviously intentional – nods to Peter Jackson's work on Lord of the Rings, while other sequences present fantastical vistas naggingly familiar from the likes of Harry Potter and even the Star Wars cantina. Because while there's no doubting that Del Toro has a jaw-dropping flair when it comes to dreaming up splendiferously bizarre beasties, this facility also serves to underline just how hand-me-down his work is in other areas. 
    There's very little in Hellboy II, for example, that hasn't been seen or heard (Danny Elfman's blaring score seldom lets up) in many other entrants into the sci-fi, fantasy or horror genres, including a big-dopey-daddy subplot straight out of Shrek the Third. Even in the superhero sub-genre it's now old hat to find the ingrate, knuckleheaded Great Unwashed unfairly barracking a good-intentioned but destructive goodie. And while it's harsh to say that – to paraphrase Del Toro himself – the worst thing in designing a movie is just referencing other movies, such 'borrowings' are, in this context, a touch dismaying.
   But whereas Pan's Labyrinth – still by far his best work – was a Spanish-language production and therefore "arthouse" (=difficult, painful, nightmarish) Del Toro is very much in Hollywood mode here. Hellboy II for all its sometimes high-falutin' airs, seems largely oriented at action-hungry young-teenage (fan-)boys, and has been made (in Budapest's new Korda studio-complex, a hop and a skip from Hellboy's Barrandov studios in Prague), with current box-office realities in mind. Careful watching of the many action-sequences will detect a very high body-count – but the picture's carnage is, as in the latest Mummy picture and even The Dark Knight, almost entirely bloodless. This is fantasy violence and – given Hellboy's whomp-first-think-(much)-later proclivities – violence is consistently (and somewhat worryingly, given the target-audience) presented as the most viable means of solving almost any given problem.
   Only rarely are the consequences of such an approach considered – and it's surely no coincidence that what's by some measure the most effective and original set-piece, in which a city is menaced (Cloverfield-like) by a colossal, tendrilled but ultra-verdant and oddly "beautiful" forest-spirit, is also the one in which Hellboy is most unavoidably forced to contemplate the downside of his sledgehammer tactics. Extinction is, we and he sadly thus realise, a harsh fate – even for this un-jolliest of green giants.

Neil Young
14.Aug.08

Recommended further reading: erudite commentary on Hellboy II (and much else besides) by Steve Tompkins over at The Cimmerian

MORE FROM SUMMER 2008

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USA (US/Ger)
120m (BBFC timing)

director : Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, The Devil's Backbone, etc)
editor : Bernat Vilaplana (La Zona, The Best of Me, Pan's Labyrinth, etc)

seen 14.Aug.08 Newcastle (Empire cinema : press show)

What an eyeful! It's an extraordinary miscellany, made of scattered bits of the world — sea creatures, butterflies, poultry, armoured knights, tentacles, tails, eggs and fruit. You can pick out an inflated puffer fish, a sycamore seed, a mushroom cup, a skeleton.
  It's natural to think of an earlier artist, Hieronymus Bosch. His work was clearly an inspiration to Bruegel. But the similarity holds a big difference. One is devoted to sheer invention. The other brings its inventions to life. 
  Bosch's phantasmagoria have casts of thousands. He has an endless ability to coin weird and queasy combinations. But his creatures remain figments of his imagination. Looking at them, you think of the mind that so ingeniously devised them. Looking at Bruegel's, you think of the creatures themselves.
  What Baudelaire said of Goya is also true of Bruegel: "Goya's great merit consists of making the monstrous plausible. His monsters were born viable. Nobody has managed to surpass him for a sense of the possible absurd. All these contortions, these bestial faces, these diabolical grimaces are pierced with humanity."
  Bruegel's monsters, more monstrous than Goya's, have live burgeoning in them — yelling, writing, growing, colliding. The struggle of wild, revolting devils against lean, dainty, tidying angels, is the kind of confrontation Bruegel is often drawn to: fat vs thin, gluttons vs prudes. He is not quite of the Devil's party, but he can certainly feel with both sides.
   Tom Lubbock
   'Great Works : The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) Pieter Bruegel'
   The Independent (London) 15th August 2008