In 2004 Hellboy made a ripple on the ever-growing superhero movie scene that was swallowed up in the wave of larger fare such as Spiderman 2. It was somewhat of a shame, as Hellboy featured one of the comic world’s more interesting and most entertaining of protagonists; one third repentant demon, one third Dirty Harry, one third moany teenager.
What Guillermo del Toro did with Hellboy should be admired, particularly in light of the fact that the film is essentially a big amusing failure. Part of the agreement in casting the ideal Ron Perlman in the lead role was that the budget ended up slashed. As a result, demon-hunter Hellboy ends up fighting the same monster over and over and over. And over. It wasn’t even that interesting a monster (on a barely related note, Sammael in fact looked far more like the hybrid of a Predator and a xenomorph than that monstrosity that turned up in AVP2 did). Also, the introduction of the character of John Myers, who was meant to be the awestruck human who eased us into this not particularly alien world of demons and whatnots, managed to weigh the film down more than any number of budget constraints could.
But due to an abundance of style and wit the film was crowd-pleasing enough to take a decent handful of cash and run for the hills. Combining that with the numerous Oscar wins and noms for del Toro’s stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, and a sequel to Hellboy was almost guaranteed.
So comes Hellboy II: The Golden Army, an embarrassingly colour-by-numbers sequel. Oh sure, they’re pretty spectacular colours (gone is the obnoxious dark blue tone of Hellboy that made the film too dark at times to even see – yes, it was nearly as obnoxious as that nauseating green hue from the Matrix sequels). But as I will continuously point out here again and again, production values cannot excuse a bad film’s badness.
Hellboy II has much of what you could ask from a sequel (and what many sequels nowadays fail to cash in on): the best of the cast return, the worst character has been written out and the action and spectacle have ante-upped considerably. Ron Perlman is so perfectly comfortable as Hellboy we could imagine he never took the make-up off in the last four years. Selma Blair sexes up her goth image from the first film to a far more pleasing degree. And while Doug Jones’s Abe Sapien still fails to crossover from comedic support to central character, his own voice is actually far more suited to the character than David Hyde Pierce’s over-stuffy re-dubbing for the first film. Best of all, Agent Myers is gone, although the fact that the film should even take a second to explain where he has gone (Antarctica) shows a level of compassion for the terrible character that he does not even deserve – no doubt audiences would have been happier to be left imagining all the terrible things that might have happened to him since the last film and be done with it.
What’s missing is the sense of doom from the first film. Here an embittered elf is determined to reap his revenge on mankind. Hellboy has to stop him. But the first film (and the comics as well, I understand) spent so much time highlighting how Hellboy himself was the doom of the world, that this plot seems bizarrely secondary, like an episode of a Hellboy TV show, or one of the admirable but similarly ignorable animated Hellboy movies, Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron. There are a few references to Hellboy’s greater (evil) purpose, but by in large the plot of this film seems to wish to overshadow it, which it simply cannot.
So yes, there’s evil elf (Luke Goss), and he has a trollish henchman, and they try to control a giant mechanical army. And Hellboy tries to stop him, by going largely against the book, and against his new father figure, ghost-in-a-suit Johann Krauss (whose very existence raises far too many questions). And all the way along it’s very very pretty. And Abe falls in love with evil elf’s twin sister. And it’s utterly unbelievable.
The fairest way to continue this review is to completely tear the film apart and then talk for a time about how pretty it is. Cause then we’ll all feel much better.
Hellboy was a funny film. There was wit, and an underlying sense of fun and joy in the subject, but that is largely gone here. Hellboy’s quips have become so stock that the film asks us to laugh purely based on the delivery. “And stay down” shouts Hellboy as he slams his bulky opponent to the floor. Ok, why not? Maybe there is no more suitable line available, but I’m certain anything would have been funnier. Even the cleverest line of the film, delivered by a disturbing infant growing out of some monster, is delivered with clumsy gurgling. It’s quite a shame really.
There are numerous other things to nitpick at, such as the sequence battling the tooth fairies in which the “red shirt” agents are boringly picked off one by one, or the Men in Black-stolen scene at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense where Jeffrey Tambor’s FBI chief stumbles through his lines so awkwardly it seems he never saw the script (oh yes, it’s clearly meant to look like he’s flustered, but it makes for terrible cinema).
But Hellboy II’s biggest failing is it is patronising – oh so patronising. Perhaps more so than recent Spiderman or Superman films. And it’s a tragedy coming from the same filmmaker who broke so many rules with Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Agent Myers looks like a helpful narrative construct compared to some of the scenes in this film. For example, the emphasis on the connection between the two elf twins could not be any more heavy-handed. By the time we reach the film’s climax only two people in the audience don’t know what’s going to happen to the villain and neither of them are expected for another five or six months. Speaking of babies, the baby plot adds almost nothing to the film bar a bone of contention between Hellboy and Liz. So Hellboy has to grow up now; well he always did – that was the point of the first film, why does he need a baby (babies) to change that?
Countless parodies have been done in the last few years of how to make a sequel to a superhero film, and disturbingly it is Hellboy II, a film that could have been groundbreakingly (or at least tremoringly) different, that hits almost every single clichéd note. The superhero is unveiled to the public (in a slow-motion musical explosion sequence that is simply terribly executed), the villain implies that the hero is more like the villain than those he protects (queue Willem Dafoe-style cackling), the people he protects turn against him, he is left mortally wounded but saved by love, etc. It’s so by-the-books it could bring you to tears. It even concludes with Hellboy triumphantly “quitting the force”, only to leave himself and his team stranded in Northern Ireland (they strut triumphantly in the opposite direction of their plane). There are no excuses, not from a director who has become such an icon filming a source material that has been considered so out of the ordinary. He co-wrote the script with Mike Mignola himself!
All that considered, it is very pretty, and in the end this was always going to be a test run for del Toro’s shot at The Hobbit. And the clockwork-fetishist has undoubtedly impressed, with his team creating some remarkable visualisations. The Troll Market, although perhaps not as grand in scale as it might have been, is so brilliantly laid out, and populated by such bizarre and interesting beasties that one doesn’t know what to admire most. Make-up, puppetry and animatronics create creatures that are as much Uruk-hai as they are Skeksis, a wonderful combination of available technologies – further hinting at what joys The Hobbit might bring.
Most enjoyable of all is the film’s opening, in which the story’s prologue is narrated in a marionette-style fashion that recalls Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s 2004 film Strings. Charming, if far too early a peak for the film.
The sequence in which the elemental god covers the city in glowing grass could not have been done better without flying Miyazaki in to show them how it should be done. Character designs, such as the legless goblin (with a surprisingly authentic Northern Irish accent), the elf king and Death (truly noteworthy) are all the signs of a master filmmaker, who is simply slumming it with an incomplete script. The final battle against the clockwork army in the clockwork palace atop a clockwork floor is notable not just for the impressive choreography but also for being a CG action sequence which never really feels confusing. It’s a sign of just how far the technology has come and the good it can do in the right hands.
Alas these were the right hands at the wrong time. A beautiful experience does not a good film make. While del Toro is clearly still learning – he has admittedly created here a villain who is not just evil for the sake of it as in his previous films – we certainly should have expected more from this, and it goes to show that in terms of storytelling he is still far behind his compatriots Cuarón and Iñárritu. It had been such a strong summer in terms of blockbusters, it’s somewhat of a tragedy that a director so reliable should let himself down so greatly.