In the hands of anyone but director Guillermo Del Toro Hellboy could have turned out to be just another cinematic superhero. Thankfully Michael Bay and his soulless Hollywood brethren didn’t get their hands on the story of a little demon baby from the dark side who grows up to be a Baby Ruth-loving warrior battling the forces of hell.
Del Toro, the visionary behind a string of beautifully realized fantasy and horror films, including the Oscar nominated Pan’s Labyrinth, first brought Hellboy to the screen four years ago in a film that played up the horror aspects of the character’s comic book roots. This time around he plays on a bigger canvas, adding elements of fantasy and not one, but two love stories.
The action in Hellboy II: The Golden Army begins when an ancient truce between humans and the citizens of the underworld is broken by the ruthless Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) and an array of mythical creatures. “Let this remind you why you once feared the dark,” he says as the quest to reclaim all three pieces of a magical crown that will reunite the mighty Golden Army begins. That’s where Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his colleagues at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense come in. Comprised of Hellboy’s pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), and ectoplasmic mystic Johann Krauss (James Dodd), the BPRD are the only government agency who have a chance against the evil netherworld soldiers.
Complicating matters is a PR problem—the public doesn’t take well to the irresponsible knucklehead Hellboy, with his red skin and horns—and matters of the heart as Abe discovers unexpected love in the elf princess Nuala (Anna Walton) and Liz’s relationship with Big Red hits a rough patch.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is one of the rare sequels that is better than the original film. Working with a bigger budget this time around Del Toro has the money to fully realize his vision for the film; and what visions they are. He’s opened up his fertile imagination to create some unforgettable images like a Troll Market underneath the Brooklyn Bridge that rivals the famous Star Wars cantina scene, a new ectoplasmic character and a myriad of strange and wonderful creatures from the underworld.
These stunning images will make your eyeballs dance, but the amazing thing about Hellboy II: The Golden Army isn’t Del Toro’s astonishing visual sense, or his equally impressive way of choreographing large action scenes like the battle between Big Red and a vine creature on the streets of New York. No, it is his ability to balance the two with a really compelling story and not allow his characters to get lost in the din.
Despite setting the film in a fantastic world where mystical creatures interact with humans Del Toro doesn’t skimp on characterization, wit or believable (and in some cases heartbreaking) relationships. Abe Sapien’s amphibian love for a princess he can never have could easily have fallen flat, but Del Toro and actor Doug Jones give Abe enough humanity that even though he’s basically a giant fish with ESP the audience still feels for him when his heart is broken. The kicker comes when he gets drunk and sings Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You. Who among us hasn’t done that at least once?
At the center of it all is Ron Perlman in the title role. Perfectly cast, he plays the character as an everyman with an attitude to create one of the most fun and entertaining superheroes to come along in a movie summer chock full of beings with extraordinary powers.