Thursday, July 24, 2008

Del Toro's imagination makes 'Hellboy II' a helluva good time

In a market saturated with comic book adaptation, don’t count out “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” out. It is a film that is more in of a robust fantasy adventure than a slam-bam superhero movie.

“Hellboy II,” based on the comic books by Mike Mignola, is directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro also directed the first film, but in the interim made the visionary “Pan’s Labyrinth,” an astounding fantasy film for adults that played on fears both real and fantastic. The “Hellboy” films are more mainstream, but Del Toro brings visual panache and imagination to the films that raise them above run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare.

The first film was released by Sony, but that studio passed on the sequel. In came Universal Studios, which — banking on Del Toro’s talent — grabbed up what Sony tossed out. It would seem in the wake of the critical success of “Pan’s Labyrinth” that Universal gave complete creative freedom to Del Toro.

In the first film we learned that Hellboy (or Red, as he’s affectionately called throughout both films) was a baby demon sent through a portal from another dimension and then raised by a kindly professor (John Hurt) to battle evil instead of being a force of darkness.

Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a cigar smoking, cat loving and Baby Ruth eating wise-guy with an attitude problem, but a good heart who works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. His partners are Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a fish-man with psychic abilities; his girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a woman with pyrokinetic powers; and Johann Krauss (voice of Seth MacFarlane of “Family Guy”), a gaseous spirit kept alive by a containment suit.

The plot of this new film involves a prince (Luke Goss, “Blade II”) of a parallel world of mythic creatures who have decided to end a long standing truce with humanity. He plans to bring back the indestructible golden army. The back story of the army is told by computer enhanced marionettes in a visually compelling opening sequence.

There is a sweet subplot involving Abe falling in love with the prince’s twin sister, who joins Hellboy and his team in an attempt to stop her brother. There’s a moment about midway through the film involving the lovelorn Hellboy and Abe that is unexpected and completely inspired. Many critics have ruined the surprise. I won’t, but needless to say beer and Barry Manilow don’t mix well.

The plot of “Hellboy II” is nothing special. It is mere set-up for Del Toro to create some wonderfully unique creatures. One such creation, an angel of death with eyes on his wings, will linger in your memory long after the credits roll.

A sequence set in a hidden black market run by mythic creatures is a rich setting full of things happening in every corner. It is that attention to rendering a fully realized world that gives Del Toro’s films an edge.

Those wanting action shouldn’t worry, there’s plenty, most memorably a sequence involving creatures called tooth fairies because they have a fondness for eating teeth, but they don’t mind devouring the rest of a victim either. Another scene involving Hellboy protecting a baby while he does battle with a large plant creature has imagination and humor to spare.

Like its predecessor, “Hellboy II” has a droll, off-beat sensibility that gels nicely with the dark visuals. Perlman, a quirky character actor who previous to his success as Hellboy was probably best known for the 1980s TV series “Beauty and the Beast,” is ideal for this sort of character.

Perlman is required to toss off a lot of quips, and he delivers them with a deadpan perfection that never feels forced. He as a dynamic and forceful screen presence, but can also be tender and vulnerable especially involving scenes with Blair’s Liz. As with the original, their love story is the heart of the film.

With “Iron Man,” “Hulk,” “and “The Dark Knight,” summer 2008 has definitely been the summer of superheroes. It is hard to say where “Hellboy” fits in that mix, but here’s hoping he doesn’t get lost.

No comments: