I wasn't wild about the first Hellboy film
. It was okay, but I thought the bad guys seemed to have been pulled out of the scriptwriter's arse. Why are these freaks fighting each other? Answer: because it's a comic book movie. The film had lots of nice ingredients, but I wasn't convinced by it.
Hellboy II obeys the law of modern comic book series by improving on the original. (Reboots like Punisher and Hulk don't count.) The villains are as outrageous as last time, but the movie turns this into a virtue by changing genres from superheroes to fantasy. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro had originally planned to exploit the fact that they'd moved to Universal by bringing back the classic Frankenstein
. (That reminds me, I still haven't seen Van Helsing.) However he soon went down the path of folklore, as he had to multiple Oscar acclaim in Pan's Labyrinth
(2006). Instead of being about Nazis, machines and mad scientists like the first Hellboy, this film's full of elves, goblins, tooth fairies and Cloverfield
-like plant elementals that reminded me of a Miyazaki anime.
In case you were wondering, this is cool. It's done with the best eye candy of any summer blockbuster of 2008, kicking The Dark Knight
into a sad heap in the corner and not even wasting its time on Iron Man
and The Incredible Hulk
. Look at the Troll Marketplace, for instance. Notice the way del Toro's camera never gawps. He's created an array of freaks and monsters that would make Jim Henson's eyes bug out of his head, but he then has them wandering past in a crowd scene as if they were just extras. I love the way he does otherworldiness in a real setting, doing for New York and Ireland what the likes of Gaiman and Rowling have done for London.
The villain is an elf, yes, but he's played by Luke Goss as a stronger rerun of his mutant vampire Jared Nomak in del Toro's Blade II. He's eerier and more badass than the elves in Lord of the Rings, good though they were. I like the fairy-tale rules which govern his existence, but they're side by side with the fact that he's a violent killer with a good point. This film's all about normal people versus freaks, with Hellboy and his friends having more to do with the latter. Goss's Prince Nuada regards mankind as a bunch of greedy, polluting, planet-raping murderers who are wiping out the magical realm without even realising what they're doing. This is fair. When he explains his motivations, you're almost on his side. Interestingly Goss plays him as completely rational and even as a good man, with a thoughtful delivery even of lines like "perhaps I am mad; perhaps the humans have made me so."
I see I've started talking about the themes already. They're so strong in this film that I'd had to make an active effort to stay off the subject while I was talking about other things.
The themes are what makes the film work. Yes, the special effects are amazing, but it's what del Toro's saying that turns this into a coherent story rather than just another freakshow. Hellboy's a monster working for the humans. His friends are freaks. All the normal humans are either annoying or cannon fodder. Myers hasn't returned, thank goodness, and the film's infinitely stronger for it. He'd have diffused its focus. Hellboy yearns to be able to operate openly without being a covert government operative, but when it happens he soon falls out of love with being recognised in the street. Cops aim guns at him. Prince Nuada points out that the fantasy creatures Hellboy's fighting and killing are the last survivors of a lost age of wonders.
This is a much richer set of themes and tensions here than we had last time, which pays off in the story that's being told through the medium of Hellboy and his friends. Just as this film's villains can be sympathetic, there are two occasions when the heroes make awful, selfish choices for the sake of the ones they love. This film doesn't have a complicated plot. It's not about clever twists and surprises, but what it has instead is depth.
That said, though, I thought the script was occasionally skating on thin ice. The swarm of tooth fairies is so monstrous and unstoppable that it's simply weird to see our heroes shooting guns at it. What's that meant to achieve? You might as well throw stones in the sea. Similarly the psychic link between Price Nuada and his twin sister is rather convenient in how much information it conveys, telling Nuada the location of Hellboy's secret base but not where his sister hid the MacGuffin. Why didn't she get someone like Abe Sapien to hide it for her? Answer: because that would have been inconvenient for the plot. There's also a big problem with the finale in that its two big developments are almost visible from space, to the extent that I wouldn't have known they were meant to be twists if I hadn't been kept waiting for them.
However these are everyday problems and in a film like this, I for one am happy to overlook them. Personally I'll always choose a rich story that's doing interesting things with its characters over something that's merely hitting all the usual marks. It's worth mentioning that my brother didn't think this was as good as everyone says, though.
The characters all work better than last time. Myers improves the film by being absent, although in fairness I liked the actor. The Liz-Hellboy relationship is stronger. Abe Sapien is a revelation, getting a love interest (!) and blossoming as the unexpected heart of the movie. I like all the actors, but there's one in particular who blows me away.
Ron Perlman is the man. It's hard to explain how good he is in this film, especially in an action hero role for a man who'll be sixty next year. Firstly there's the prosthetics. If you look at all the actors who can't act through a moustache of all things, maybe you'll get a better appreciation of how much presence Perlman puts on screen despite being painted entirely red with horns, a tail and a stone hand as big as my leg. Then there's the fact that despite strong scenes with Liz and Abe Sapien, the most remarkable thing about his work here is that he's spinning gold out of straw. Hellboy's a thug whose approach to any problem involves punching or guns. That's what the character boils down to. What hits the screen is so much more than that, but 80% of the credit for that is Perlman's. He can pull laughs out of nowhere with this matter-of-fact delivery that makes it funny just to see him standing up and seeing something new to bludgeon.
I love the way he talks to Nuada when they're fighting, for instance. It's not macho bullshit, as one expects from action movies these days, but actual conversation.
Of all things, this film is charming. It has odd little perspectives, such as the moment where Princess Nuala notices something different about Abe Sapien. He's wearing contact lenses. Here's an immortal elf talking to a walking fish and she's treating him like any girl talking to any boy. That's the movie in a nutshell right there. I could also talk all day about the scene where Hellboy and Abe discuss love and get drunk.
This film is brimming with moments to rewind and watch again. Sometimes they're just cool visuals, such as the way Johann Krauss's suit reinflates. (Just you wait for Krauss. I can't believe I haven't mentioned him.) Sometimes it's just cool stuff like the gratuitous baby endangerment. You can't go wrong with baby endangerment. It's like severed head gags. However often it'll just be details, e.g. the way Ron Perlman can pull distinctive moments for his character out of thin air.
The elves talk in Gaelic, by the way. Cool, eh?