Hellboy (Perlman) is struggling to accept the strictures of his secret life, or make compromises for the sake of his relationship with pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Blair). But with elf prince Nuada (Goss) about to declare war on humanity, he soon has more
Perhaps the most grievous fault of the original Hellboy film was that there simply wasn’t enough of the eponymous demon-turned-defender-of-humanity (Ron Perlman) in it. With bad guys including a reincarnated Nazi-Russian magician, his Eva Braun-alike girlfriend, a self-replicating mutant and a clockwork-powered assassin, there wasn’t time to develop the main character beyond a penchant for pizzas, cats and his fire-raising teammate, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). This time the focus is back where it belongs - on Big Red and his friends. While they’re surrounded by a wealth of characters ranging from gorgeous to grotesque, this is a Hellboy film that gives the fans everything that they were hoping for first time around, and more besides.
The great white hope before release was that director Guillermo del Toro would manage to combine the two threads of his career here: the populist Hollywood comic-book movies like Blade II, and the imaginative flair and visual wizardry of Pan’s Labyrinth.
To some extent, he’s done just that; the creature design is extraordinary, the world an Art Deco masterpiece, every frame crammed with detail that begs to be freeze-framed and examined at leisure - particularly in the stunning Troll Market set-piece. And there is more going on than simply the ‘find bad guy, beat him up’ arc of a first-base comic-book story. Del Toro’s beasties have pathos: not one of them goes down without showing a moment of, well, humanity, and the bad guys are, arguably, the ones with right on their side.
That layering calls Hellboy’s role very much into question. He fights for the humans, yes, but he’ll never be accepted as one of them. And as a ‘freak’ himself, he sees beyond the monstrous appearance of the other magical creatures, causing him more than a slight pang when faced with killing a creature that may be unique, the last of its kind. That’s particularly true of a rampaging “forest elemental” straight out of Miyazaki, let loose on the streets of Manhattan on a mission to kill Big Red himself. Such layering is built into the design of the creatures: even bad guy Prince Nuada’s (Luke Goss) right-hand troll, Wink (Brian Steele), has enough expressiveness in the rubber face to add colour to a role that essentially does just involve beating people up and growling, while Ron Perlman’s Hellboy betrays subtle whispers of emotion with every twitch of his heavily prostheticised face. It’s typically del Toro, too, to make the ravenous, rampaging “tooth fairies” also strangely cute, and to give them a fondness for amateur dramatics (judging by one death scene, at any rate). Even his take on a facehugger looks like a cross between a squid and an orchid, while his Angel Of Death is terrifyingly, obscenely beautiful.
The creatures at the heart of this moral labyrinth are Nuada and his twin sister, Nuala (Anna Walton). Twin heirs to an elf throne, separated by their opposing views on peaceful co-existence with humans but locked together by bonds of siblinghood, it falls on them to drive the plot, as Nuada schemes to rediscover and unleash the unstoppable, invincible Golden Army against humanity to restore a balance promised long ago, and Nuala seeks help to stop him. Perversely, after complaining that the villains got too much screentime in the first film, Nuada needs a tiny bit more to make a proper impact here. Another quick brooding scene, perhaps, in his subway lair, or a more thorough attempt to win Hellboy over to his side and explain his agenda, would give him more weight and make his cause both more appealing and more dangerous. It’s tempting to blame Goss, but he does a perfectly good job, even if it is much the same role as he played in Blade II.
But it is by no means all doom and gloom and moral philosophising. Hellboy and the Bureau Of Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD) are much, much funnier than before, closer to the tone of the comics and the animated films than ever. A walk-and-talk through its corridors is elevated by some outrageous background shenanigans - think Men In Black’s headquarters - and the mournful comedy of Jeffrey Tambour as boss-man Manning. Meanwhile, the team is invigorated by the arrival of ectoplasmic German mist/mystic Johann Kraus (voiced by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane). His vast self-assurance, refusal to be intimidated by Hellboy, and stereotypically Teutonic efficiency make him the perfect foil for Big Red’s belligerence, Liz’s self-effacement and Abe Sapien’s (Doug Jones) tendency towards academic fascination. Sapien has a much increased role. Left out in the cold a little by Hellboy’s stormy relationship with Liz, he becomes fascinated with Nuala, in whom he sees something of a kindred spirit.
Their romance is tentative and lightly sketched, but Jones’ hesitance makes it rather sweet. He’s now voicing, as well as playing Abe (David Hyde Pierce had taken voice duties in the first film), and if he’s not quite as delicately intellectual, he compensates by perfectly matching his body language to his speech.
Meanwhile, Liz and Hellboy’s relationship may be quite literally fiery, but it’s also one grounded in real affection. That’s not to say that they express it easily: “I would give my life for her - but she also wants me to do the dishes,” complains Hellboy, somewhat missing the point in a rare moment of male bonding with Abe, amid the fistfights and explosions.
And there is plenty of action. The opening salvo is a puppet epic, as Hellboy’s father (John Hurt) reads the 11 year-old Red a legend about a war between man and magical creatures, culminating in the creation and deployment of the fearsome Golden Army, monsters that would be straight out of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth were it not for the cogs that power them. The puppets are a lovely touch, reminiscent of Strings, but from then on the action gets a little more grounded, relying more on prosthetics than CG, and variations on the theme of fisticuffs. Hench-troll Wink has the clever gimmick of a hand that flies like a medieval mace (more clockwork, of course), while Nuada uses a nifty extendable spear and wire-fu combo to keep things fresh. Admittedly, it sometimes feels like a string of events in s
As much Tolkiens baby as Mignolas, this has more heart and humour than most fantasy films can dream of. Hellaciously good.