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Arts & Culture

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High expectations can place an undue burden on a film but Guillermo Del Toro and Hellboy II more than deliver. Del Toro and his film deliver action, humor, dazzling visuals, and an all-around good time.

The first Hellboy film felt very much like Mike Mignola's comic book, and Del Toro's affection for the source material was evident. But the sequel feels much more like one of Del Toro's personal films. It's Del Toro's personality more than Mignola's that comes through this time. Although del Toro is moving away from Mignola's comics in some way, he's not doing it out of disrespect or lack of appreciation for the source material but rather he seems to be building on Mignola's foundation and taking Hellboy in some new directions for the big screen.

The first film gave us Hellboy's back-story explaining how he came through a hellhole in World War II and then grew up (but Hellboy doesn't age like humans, it's "reverse dog years") to work for the forces of good at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense or B.P.R.D. That first film asked what it is that makes us human, and according to Hellboy's adoptive father Dr. Broom (John Hurt), humanity lies in one's ability to choose between good and evil. So you could say the first film was about Hellboy finding his humanity and the new film is about him finding his place in the world.

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Ron Perlman returns as Red in Hellboy II (Universal)

The Golden Army finds Hellboy or Red, at something of a crossroads again. He's tired of being holed up at the B.P.R.D. and having to do all his crime fighting in secret. So for their latest outing, Red decides to go public in a very big way. Now, much to his boss Tom Manning's frustration, the B.P.R.D. is in the middle of a media frenzy. But all this public attention (and not all of it positive) comes at a point when Red has to enter a subterranean mythical world that exists under New York City where he must fight an underworld prince. Moving between these two worlds, Hellboy has to ask himself which one does he actually fit best in - with the freaks or with the humans.

Hellboy II opens with a clever and delightful prologue that allows us to see little Hellboy with Broom (played again with warmth by John Hurt). We find that Hellboy loves TV and thinks Howdy Doody is real. But Hellboy can't buy into the mythical world contained in a fairy tale Broom reads to him. Flashforward to the present day and Red suddenly finds that he has to re-evaluate those feelings. The emergence of the mythical kingdom's exiled Prince Nuada (Luke Goss of Blade 2) challenges what Red thinks he knows about the real world. The prince wants to break the truce established between his father and the human world. Nuada wants to wage war on the humans by awakening the indestructible Golden Army. But his sister Princess Nuala (Anne Watson) opposes him and chooses to help the B.P.R.D. to defeat her brother.

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Luke Goss as Prince Nuada in Hellboy II (Universal)

Del Toro has always had a soft spot for monsters (read my interview with him where he explains his life altering experience with monsters as a child). Whether it's the grandfatherly vampire in Cronos , the little ghost in The Devil's Backbone or the creatures of Pan's Labyrinth , Del Toro knows how to make them real and sympathetic. He draws inspiration from films such as James Whale's 1930s Frankenstein films. When I asked Del Toro what film he was most thankful for, he said, "James Whale's Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff as the monster) because I believe that it is one of the most beautifully articulate ways of saying how we are thrown into this world by a creator that does not care for us, and how we have to find our way in it." Like Whale, Del Toro favors sympathetic portraits of monsters. And that's probably why you will find a clip of Whale's Bride of Frankenstein playing in Hellboy's room.

All this just proves that the pairing of Del Toro and Mike Mignola's comic book Hellboy is a match made in heaven. First Del Toro knows how to make Hellboy (Ron Perlman) a lead character who despite his red skin, tail, and sawed off horns, is essentially just a blue collar, average Joe. Then Del Toro creates a fantastical world beneath the human one and populates it with strange creatures but ones that possess personality. And to top it off, Del Toro reveals compassion for even the evil beings Red faces. At one point, Nuada unleashes a forest creature to kill Hellboy (think about the forest spirit at the end of Princess Mononoke ) and as Hellboy is about to kill it, Nuada asks if he really has the heart to kill something as beautiful as it is and to destroy something that's the last of a species. In that moment, Nuada displays just enough poetry and humanity, that we can't quite hate him completely. This part of the story, involving Nuada and his mythical world, is where Del Toro finds dark beauty.

But Del Toro is also looking to make a highly entertaining film and he finds that in the way mundane daily life keeps colliding with Red's supernatural one. Red is the monster world's version of Ralph Kramden or Al Bundy (and at times I worried that Del Toro would let the film get too jokey but fortunately he knew when to pull back from the sitcom material). At the moment, Red's having a domestic squabble with Liz (Selma Blair), a pyrokinetic who's also on the B.P.R.D. team. When they fight, buildings get damaged. Red does have a temper but he's quire touching in response to Liz when she says she needs to leave so she can think, and he tells her to stay because he'll be real quiet. He and Abe Sapien (this time both played and voiced by Doug Jones) also have an amusing drunken night as they listen to Barry Manilow and mourns their momentary lack of luck with romance. Who would have thought that Del Toro could make Barry Manilow cool?


Fighting for unusual casting choices -- Selma Blair and Ron Perlman in Hellboy II (Universal)

Like many people, Hellboy also displays displeasure with his job and his boss (Jeffrey Tambor reprising his role). Let's face it, Red has problems dealing with authority. He even had -- like any good teenager - rebellion issues with his father. But at the moment, he's disgruntled with B.P.R.D.'s rules and regulations, and he has no respect for the new guy Johann Kraus (voiced by Family Guy's Seth McFarlane), who's a disembodied ectoplasmic spirit possessing psychic abilities and who manages a human form via a clunky containment suit. He's also a bit of a by-the-book tight ass.

As with Del Toro's first Hellboy , what makes this film rise above some of the other comic book fare is the way Red has been brought to the screen by Del Toro and actor Ron Perlman. They essentially make you forget that Red's this bizarre creature because Perlman invests him with such humanity. He makes him feel rooted in the real world even though that world includes demons, trolls, and a giant mechanical army. Plus Perlman is used to emoting under layers of heavy make-up having played a primitive man in Quest for Fire and the beast half of TV's Beauty and the Beast. Hellboy may be bright red, have a tail, a stony right arm, and need to file down his horns every morning but he also has a big heart and plenty of very human sized flaws. So in the end Perlman never acts like he's in heavy make up, and that makes us buy into the fantasy world. He creates a monster and gives him a soul, vulnerability, and a sense of humor.

We also buy into the fantasy world because Del Toro makes it so tangible and so natural. Like Hiyao Miyazaki's anime (particularly Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle ), Del Toro presents us with a real world and a fantastical one existing side by side. Del Toro mixes actors, make up, animatronics and computer-generated effects with such seamless precision that we can't tell where one ends and the other begins. His preference for real actors on real sets rather that a lot of CGI in post helps make this world feel more real. The director chooses to have all the creatures played by humans and then enhanced to varying degrees by make up, CGI work and other effects tricks. The results are dazzling and the approach gives the creatures more personality. This goes for his stunts as well. Check out the behind the scenes video to see how Del Toro used things like trampolines inside of wirework to make people fly through the air during action scenes. Plus Del Toro takes such pleasure in the world he creates and to fill it with such detail that it's hard to resist. He's like an enthusiastic little kid showing off a drawing he just made, and you are completely taken in by his imagination.

Del Toro is well aided by a brilliant tech crew. Rather than going with an established giant like George Lucas' ILM to do the effects, Del Toro went with some fresher choices. He sought out a Mexican company for some work and went with younger artists starting out in effects and animation to help render all the work in Hellboy II. The energy from these Hollywood outsiders pays off. Del Toro also benefits from cinematographer Guillermon Navarro and production designer Stephen Scott, both of whom he's worked successfully with before. They create a rich range of visuals for the film. The open features what looks like wooden marionettes for the fairy tale that little Hellboy is listening to, and that sets the perfect stage for mythical world that will come vividly to life before our eyes.


Hellboy and his new toy (Universal)

I heard someone complain about Pan's Labyrinth , and ask why does Del Toro feel the need to throw in these creatures all the time. That's kind of like asking why did Lewis Carroll let Alice go through the Looking Glass. Plus no one complained that Alfred Hitchcock never made a musical comedy or a western. He stuck to what he did best because no one else was doing horror/thrillers as well as him. Well Del Toro has a gift for the fantastical and I'm delighted that he keeps making films that take me to different worlds. To ask Del Toro to stay away from monsters would be like forbidding Gene Kelly to dance or Jackie Chan from doing stunts. What a waste.

What so refreshing about Del Toro is that he's a foreign and indie director who's managed to keep his unique style of filmmaking even while working within the Hollywood studio system. Whether he's making a personal film ( Cronos, The Devil's Backbone ) or a Hollywood film ( Blade 2, Hellboy ), his distinct personality always comes through - just in varying degrees. With Hellboy II, Del Toro seems to have made his most personal Hollywood film yet. The first film fulfilled his dream of bringing Mike Mignola's comic book hero to the big screen with Ron Perlman in the lead (something the studios fought him on for seven years).

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language) reveals that Del Toro is as smart as he is creative. Although it has taken him many years, he has pursued a career that has cleverly navigated between art house and Hollywood. Along the way he has pulled his art house fans into the mall theaters for films like Hellboy , and his mainstream fans into the art house for films like Pan's Labyrinth. And with each film he seems to be getting better and more adept at making exactly the types of films he wants, and that is impressive. I liked Hellboy II so much that I am going this weekend to pay and see it again because I want to make sure my dollars count on opening weekend to show my support for both Red and Del Toro. I hope you'll do the same so maybe Hollywood will be inspired to start making better films.

Companion viewing: Hellboy , Cronos , Mimic , The Devil's Backbone , Pan's Labyrinth , Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke