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Empire Has Seen Hellboy II

Read our man in LA's first reaction

So, one of the most eagerly-awaited movies of the summer – Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army – screened for the first time last night in Los Angeles, and our man in LA, Chris Hewitt, was there. This is his reaction – but remember, readers, that this is NOT the official Empire review and that Chris’ views may not correspond with that review, when it appears.

“How is Hellboy II? Well, I just posted a status update on my Facebook page that says it’s ‘funny, thrilling, and throbbing with boundless imagination and invention. Go see.’ And that about sums it up. This is one of the best films of the summer, and may even be, when all the dust has settled, one of the best films of the year. It’s certainly del Toro’s best English-language film. Sorry, Mimic, but your crown has been stolen. Ahem.

Of course, I’m slightly biased here and must declare a slight conflict of interest. I was on set a couple of times, yes, and spent several enjoyable days sitting at del Toro’s right hand (and, sometimes, his left hand. I’m unpredictable that way). But that gave me a ringside seat as the film was put together, and I was able to detect an increase in confidence in del Toro from the guy who made the first Hellboy in 2004. After all, he’s now Guillermo del Toro, director of the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that’s pretty much universally acknowledged as a masterpiece, while del Toro himself is seen as one of the brightest and best directors working today. And, while he remains modest and self-deprecating, it’s clear after spending even a small amount of time with him, that this is a more confident, settled, almost serene del Toro. A man who knows he’s capable of true brilliance.

And Hellboy II is exactly that: truly brilliant. Whatever your thoughts about the original (some love it, some like it, some are decidedly cool about it), this is light years ahead. This is Wrath Of Khan to its Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s that much of an evolution. It’s that good.

I won’t go into full details, because this is not a review but a reaction, but visually, Hellboy II is a treat, with del Toro’s longtime DP, Guillermo Navarro, cloaking the film in lustrous and deep reds, blues, yellows and deep, deep shadows, giving the film its own distinct look while tipping a wink, more successfully this time, to the artwork of Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy.

It certainly looks like it cost way more than its $80 million budget, with some set-pieces of extraordinary scale and scope, including an astonishing face-off between Ron Perlman’s Hellboy and a giant 40-foot forest god elemental on the streets of New York (which comes complete with a very cute nod to John Woo’s Hard Boiled), and the climactic showdown between Hellboy, his friends in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, and the eponymous Golden Army, a horde of indestructible golden robots, each the size of a small building.

It’s funnier than the original, too, which is a relief. Most sequels take a strange pride in being darker than the original and while Hellboy II doesn’t shy away from the murkier aspects (a quite chilling scene with a character named The Angel Of Death leaves us in little doubt that Hellboy III, if and when it happens, will be a much darker, gruelling experience), but for the most part, this is a romp.

The big laughs come from the off, with an early foray into Men In Black territory, to a show-stopping scene in which Hellboy and his lovelorn fish-man best pal, Abe Sapien, get pissed and sing along to… well, you’ll see. It’s a scene so delightfully realised that it drew spontaneous applause from the audience I saw it with – and once again reinforces one of the key charms of del Toro’s movie: that these beautiful freaks may seem the opposite, but in their behaviours and interactions, they’re all too human.

The film’s funniest moments come from a new character, Johann Krauss, a fishbowl-helmeted ectoplasmic detective (as in, he’s actually made of ectoplasm) who is brought in the BPRD to keep Hellboy in check. Voiced with relish and a great German accent by Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane, watching the gruff, aggressive Hellboy, whose nose has been put of joint by the new arrival, butt horns with Krauss is an absolute joy, with a showdown in a locker room particularly hilarious. Krauss gets many of the best lines, including an absolute humdinger in the final showdown.

And his arrival highlights another key evolution for Hellboy II - it’s a true team movie, with del Toro skilfully keeping the focus on Hellboy – who’s tortured and confused by his relationship with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), which appears to be spiralling out of control for reasons he’s not entirely privy to – while bringing Abe (this time voiced, as well as performed, by Doug Jones) front and centre by giving him a love interest. That comes in the form of Anna Walton’s Princess Nuala, the twin sister of Luke Goss’ effective and regal bad guy, Prince Nuada, a disenfranchised Elf who wishes to unleash the Golden Army on mankind. But everyone gets something to do: Blair has a touching sub-plot which comes into play as del Toro gradually ups the emotional stakes, while Jeffrey Tambor – as the ball-busting BPRD boss, Tom Manning – does a nice line in bluster.

There are some flaws, of course – the film is so unapologetic in its full, matter-of-fact immersion into a fantasy world populated with trolls, ogres, elves and voracious tooth fairies that it might be off-putting for some audiences. For fans of monster movies, though, this is the motherlode, with del Toro and his team studding the movie with an astonishing array of fully-realised and stunningly designed creatures, from the ape-like giant, Wink, to a character named Cathedral Head (who, quite literally, has a head shaped like a cathedral), and, much to this viewer’s delight, a Northern Irish goblin who shows up when the BPRD team pitch up near the Giant’s Causeway.

Yet the sheer amount of monsters here – an extended sequence set in a Troll Market simply blows away, say, the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence from Star Wars – is staggering, and though many of them are CG, the vast majority are realised with practical effects, from animatronics to plain old-fashioned men in suits. Stan Winston would have loved this film. And del Toro’s comfort in blending the eye-popping locations, mystical creatures, a wide-ranging story that spans the globe, and yet a narrow focus on a group of likeable and multi-layered characters certainly bodes well for The Hobbit. To quote my Facebook status update again, ‘Go see’. It’s that simple.”

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