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With: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, John Alexander, James Dodd, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hurt, Brian Steele
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, based on a story by Guillermo del Toro, Mike Mignola
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language
Running Time: 120
Date: 06/28/2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Red Brawn

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How often does a guy go from making one of the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language film to making one of the summer's best action hero sequels? Not often, but the real irony is that though Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army is every bit as good as Pan's Labyrinth (2006), this new film will receive nowhere near the same kind of acclaim. It's all about the packaging.

Ron Perlman returns as Hellboy, the reluctant, cigar-chomping hero with red skin, sawed-off horns and a massive right hand, who was once rescued from another dimension and raised (more or less) as a human. Hellboy usually enters the fray with a sigh or maybe a muttered, "ah crap." He's part of a secret government organization and works with another agent, a kind of telepathic fish man called Abe Sapien (embodied by Doug Jones, though David Hyde Pierce -- who voiced Abe in the first film -- does not return). He's now in a full-fledged relationship with his beloved Liz (Selma Blair), who can conjure up fire at will, though they have entered the arguing stage (over toothbrushes, etc.). Things get worse when Hellboy blows the organization's cover by appearing in front of a gaggle of reporters. Henceforth, Washington sends a new, strict liaison to set things right. He's called Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane and embodied by John Alexander and James Dodd), and he's basically a wisp of fog contained in a kind of space suit. The team's latest challenge comes when Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) returns to claim an enchanted crown that will enable him to control an army of golden warriors; he's an oddly sympathetic villain, and a step up for Del Toro. (A young Hellboy learns about the prince, in the form of a bedtime story, in the film's flashback prologue.) The Prince's sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), teams up with our heroes to try and stop her brother. Unfortunately, Abe falls in love with her so hard that he gets drunk and listens to Barry Manilow. Jeffrey Tambor also returns as the stern, nervous government agent Manning in charge of keeping the peace between the heroes and the rest of the world. (Fortunately, the pretty white guy from the first film does not return.)

This may not be great literature, but it's a more compact story than the original Hellboy (2004), forgoing the long, dull origin sequence and jumping right in. Hellboy is the delightfully curmudgeonly center of this wacked-out universe; he's far more concerned with smoking good cigars, watching TV or getting back on Liz's good side than he is with any world-threatening beasties. He never hesitates to go into battle, but it's usually an inconvenience. Though he and Liz sometimes complain about not fitting in, he's the most "normal" part of the film; he's what we hang onto as Del Toro creates an astonishing tapestry of unexpected and unimaginable beasties all around him. The director takes your breath away throughout with truly awesome set pieces, such as the "troll market," which exists through a secret door beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The scene plays a bit like the Cantina sequence in the original Star Wars (1977), where hugely expressive and imaginative creatures pass casually by in the background, never to be seen again. But a second look at all this stuff shows a definite connection with all of Del Toro's other films. An eyeless creature looks a bit like the one in Pan's Labyrinth. Giant, turning gears relate to Del Toro's continuing fascination with clocks and clockwork. But this time Del Toro seems to have been given more freedom and more money to create an even more complete universe, packed to the corners with his peculiar, unique ideas and nightmares. In their imagination and consistency, these singular trademarks venture close to David Cronenberg's obsession with human physical limitations and their connection with technology. If nothing else, Hellboy II is a Hollywood summer blockbuster that looks as if it were made by a human being rather than a corporation.

Still, I worry about how far Del Toro can go with his personal vision. Is he merely a designer with a keen eye? Is he simply making visual references to his past films? Or is he really emotionally invested in these images, making the same pictures again and again as if to stave off insanity? One thing is for sure: he's more interested in adult humans (even if they have red skin) than many of his contemporaries, and that puts him one step ahead; he could always gravitate away from fantasy and horror and into more emotionally realistic realms. It's also clear that Hellboy II is the most artistically expressive of Del Toro's seven films, and even if it sometimes lacks the basic storytelling skill of Pan's Labyrinth, it's certainly going to clock in as one of the best films in an already strong summer. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

DVD Details: This was one of my favorite movies in a very strong summer, and I think it got a little lost amidst the competition. Now Universal has released a superb 3-disc edition. It comes with a digital copy, on its own disc, that's compatible with both Mac and PC. The main disc comes with the movie, two commentary tracks (one with Del Toro and one with actors Tambor, Blair and Goss), set visits, a tour of the troll market, an animated comic book epilogue, and deleted scenes. Disc two includes a whole ton of other featurettes (running longer than the movie), plus a PDF of the screenplay!

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