Archive for July 13, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

July 13, 2008

In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro lets his freak flag fly. The Mexican fantasist behind such sui generis dark fairy tales as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (and also the first Hellboy film) clearly spent his childhood devouring every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland he could get his mitts on, and he’s still spending his childhood that way. Hellboy II is densely packed with creatures huge, small and human-sized, particularly in an episode when Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his teammates from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense have a look around some sort of troll bazaar tucked away under the Brooklyn Bridge. So many unspeakable and indescribable beasts lurch, waggle, and slither within the frame — often in the background — that the effect is less horrifying than celebratory. “I’m home,” del Toro might be saying.

Slight bad news first: Hellboy II suffers — a little — from del Toro’s shoot-the-works spirit, just as his friend Peter Jackson got lost in his Skull Island playpen. There’s always a lot going on, though the plot is comic-book simple; del Toro and cowriter Mike Mignola (who created Hellboy for Dark Horse Comics) garnish this dish so heavily that the palate becomes overwhelmed and even a little jaded. Like Jackson, even so fecund a magician as del Toro just can’t keep topping himself, and it must be said that the subtitular Golden Army, which figures in the overstuffed climax, feels like something out of a Mummy film. Whenever del Toro gets behind the wheel of a pop apocalypse like this one, cinematic gigantism takes over, not always to the movie’s benefit.

But still. Del Toro makes plenty of room for beauty and pathos, without which a monster mash is merely an advanced arts-and-crafts show. Hellboy is still smitten with Liz (Selma Blair), who commands fire and wishes the big red lug would clean up once in a while. It’s a clichéd conflict, but it also gets to the heart of their unstable relationship: bad enough he’s a stogie-chomping alpha male — he’s also a demon. Against all odds in this creature-infested summer blockbuster, Perlman and Blair do honest, hurtful work together. Hellboy’s teammate, the amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), also gets weak in the knees over a dame — in this case, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), of a dying race of elves, whose twin brother Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wants to squash all the humans and make the earth safe for inhumans again.

The multiplex hasn’t exactly been safe for humans lately; WALL•E told us we were becoming bloated simpletons, and Hellboy II considers us inelegant little monkeys whose reaction to the extraordinary is fear and loathing. But I can’t say these movies don’t have a point: we do suck in a lot of ways. Yet our complicated response to movie monsters, a mix of dread and pity which redeems us, has powered dark fantasy film since its birth. At least twice, del Toro tips his hat to Universal monsters, with Boris Karloff intoning “We belong dead” on a TV and perhaps echoing Hellboy’s thoughts at a self-hating moment, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon mirroring Abe’s predicament as a fish-man in thrall to a princess. Awkward as the plotting is, the movie is too stubbornly weird, too deeply in love with freakishness, to be waved off.

The production values are sky-high here, and del Toro scored a coup when he recruited Danny Elfman to compose the music this time; Elfman fills the soundscape with basso-profundo drama, knockabout comedy, and even a bit of Godzilla larking when Hellboy faces off against a giant Forest God, the last of its kind. Prince Nuada almost derails Hellboy by reminding him that this creature Hellboy wants to destroy is unique, much like Hellboy and his friends, and Hellboy has to make a choice: the monster or humanity? It’s nowhere near an easy choice, and the bizarre and conflicting feelings this sequence — not to mention the rest of the film — raises is worthy of a fantasist at the top of his game. I sort of let the story — the official excuse for why we’re really there — go by in a blur; the meat of it is in the shedding of a single tear by monsters who didn’t think themselves capable of it. At its best, Hellboy II conjures with delicate and very human magic.