An imaginative if somewhat messy B-movie, the type for which popcorn is popped.
A hodgepodge of sci-fi, swashbuckling adventure, wry comedy and larger-than-life comic book action, 2004's Hellboy was one of those rare mid-sized comic book adaptations that exuded a vision and spirit bigger than its (relatively chintzy) budget. Based on Mike Mignola's mid-1990s graphic novel series -- about a giant red demon spawn rescued from occult Nazi forces during World War II, and raised to be a most unlikely hero, as part of a clandestine, paranormal crime-fighting organization -- the movie benefited from the guiding influence of writer-director Guillermo del Toro, who returns in bothcapacities on Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The results this time around are a bit more mixed, but still for the most part engaging and entertaining, an eye-popping rendering of unabashedly bubblegum material.
There's no tortured superhero back story to Hellboy II, only a brief textual prologue that reminds viewers of the above-mentioned inception, and the fact that Hellboy (Ron Perlman) really likes both cats and television. After a brief scene in which a teenage Hellboy's father-figure and mentor, Professor Broom (John Hurt), relates the bedtime story of an army of unstoppable killing machines, we're thrust forward into the present day, where Hellboy lives in secluded semi-secrecy with his pyrotechnic girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). The fitful love story that formed the B-plot spine of the first film has morphed into a complicated and messy (quite literally) tale of shared domesticity. Like a lot of couples, Hellboy and Liz share the same space, but end up talking past one another, though Liz can't quite articulate why.
Their personal problems take a back seat, however, when an anarchical underworld elfin prince, Nuada (Luke Goss, looking vaguely like a cousin of those albino twins from the Matrix sequels), plots to awaken the name-checked, long-dormant mythical army, and disrupt a truce with humankind, whom he abhors. Nuada's twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), escapes with a piece of crown that he needs to enact his scheme, and Hellboy and Liz, along with aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and gaseous medium Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), set out to save her and thwart Nuada.
Del Toro's project between the two Hellboy movies, the multiple-Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth, gave him a bump in profile amongst serious cinephiles, but more importantly a bump in self-assurance. The stamp of that blooming confidence is felt everywhere in Hellboy II, from the rich, woozy background detail and character design to the film's ending, which... well, let's just say I didn't expect a Barry Manilow tune over the end credits when I first strolled into the theater.
In a way, that odd combination of auteurish swagger and vulnerability perfectly matches the material. Just as del Toro yearns for both artistic and commercial embrace, there's a certain pleasure in the airy, parenthetical nature of Hellboy's quest; he's searching for the love and acceptance of the entire world, but the actual saving, the physical feats of derring-do, are entirely incidental. He just wants to fit in, to not be regarded as a freak or outsider, all that's very relatable.
Still, the tremendous appeal of the character notwithstanding, there are a few bumps in the road. More than its predecessor, which had the advantage of chewing up fresh new ground at almost every turn, the action sequences here seem as obviously set up as hugely marked highway exits. They're part of the ride, but you sometimes question the forthrightness of the directions.
Nowhere is this more evidenced than in a city street shoot-out with a giant green "forest god" which artificially raises the stakes by merely tossing an imperiled baby into the mix -- a cheap ploy. Del Toro makes sure the film's energy never flags, but has some trouble stitching together sequences (a parallel quasi-romance between Abe and Princess Nuala never really takes flight, though it does lend the movie set-up for some humor). When a scene has outlived its usefulness, it often ends in abrupt fashion, with a music cue or visual flourish whisking the audience away, masking narrative choppiness.
If these bits sometimes disrupt the flow of Hellboy II, the movie's visual imagination and hand-crafted feel is still huge, and alluring. And there's no self-importance or angst, either -- just streamlined, B-movie kicks, the type for which popcorn is popped.