The Hellboy movie franchise, much like the comic series on which it is based, is an oddball among others of its type. At a time when most comic book films are produced on a budget of upwards of $150 million, the two entries have cost Universal only $145 million combined. And while comic book films released by rival companies have set box office records (Spider-Man 2 in 2004, The Dark Knight this year), the Hellboy films perform modestly. The first one, in fact, failed to make a profit during its domestic theatrical run.
So the existence of Hellboy II: The Golden Army is an anomaly even before you get to its content. If you missed the first one, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is the fitting codename of a secret government operative who was discovered as a child by a British/American special ops unit during the Second World War. Hellboy is a demon of some sort who was “adopted” by humans at such a young age that he has completely assimilated – or would like to. He keeps his horns shaved down to blunt ridges, has a number of pet cats, and winces at the mere thought of putting peroxide in his wounds. He even has a normal human girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), though it could be pointed out that this normal human girlfriend has the ability to create and control fire with her mind.
Hellboy leads a team of outcasts who investigate paranormal activity for the U.S. government. In other words, they kill monsters. Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, replacing David Hyde Pierce from the first film) is the team’s clairvoyant who also happens to be some sort of fish monster, Liz blows things up, and Hellboy has a really big gun. They’re chaperoned by Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), who tries to keep them all happy while keeping their existence a secret.
Sick of living life in the shadows, Hellboy wants to join the human society he emulates. Moreover, he wants to be appreciated for consistently saving the world, so he starts purposely exposing the team to the public and the media, hoping for the love and fame he feels he deserves. Much to his chagrin, his physical appearance seems to alienate people more than his saving the world endears them to him. Meanwhile, Liz soon learns she is pregnant (I don’t really want to think about the logistics of that) and, naturally, villains are hatching plots to destroy the world.
It seems that eons ago, elves and humans fought over land but eventually reached a truce by dividing the elves’ crown of power into three parts – this idea apparently coming after they read a J.R.R. Tolkien book. Now Nuada (Jake Goss), the rebellious prince of the elven empire, wants to reassemble the crown and exterminate mankind. Before he can finish putting the crown back together, his sister Nuala (Anna Walton) runs off with her piece. You can probably figure out where the plot goes from here, with Hellboy and crew wandering around lots of fascinating set pieces with some monsters jumping out at them every once in a while.
Director Guillermo Del Toro said in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly that, regarding the style-vs-substance question, his view was that the style should be the substance. This remark makes sense when considering his previous film, Pan’s Labyrinth, wherein a girl’s fantasy life mirrors her real-life problems, with a hefty dose of Spanish Civil War politics thrown in. But it’s a mistake to assume that if a film is stylized enough, it will acquire substance by osmosis, and that’s just what Del Toro does here. The costume and character design of the film is excellent, but it’s hard to pay attention to a film whose main focus is the way it looks.
I don’t mean to imply that Hellboy II is a poor film, but on occasion my mind did wander because it had little else with which to occupy its time. With a plot pieced together from every fantasy story ever told and characters that, with the exception of Hellboy, fall somewhere on the other side of interesting, the film fails to maintain interest for all of its two-hour runtime. It’s odd that Del Toro, who also wrote the story with comic creator Mike Mignola, tries his best to turn Hellboy II into an ensemble film, as Hellboy not only shares his name with the title of the film, but is by far the most fascinating character of the bunch. The hyper-intellectual Abe seems to have worn out his appeal in the first film, and Blair, as Liz, insists on speaking in a flat monotone. Manning is just a regular human in over his head, and honestly, who cares about all that elf nonsense?
The film is not without its wit and imagination, though, providing an often fun and even original take on the concept of the superhero. Hellboy is a great character, one who is all too conscious of his superhero status and whose attempts to live up to this ideal often end in amusing gaffes. He navigates his way through a fantastic world of demons, elves, and ancient robot armies doing his best imitation of a wise-cracking Dirty Harry and rarely accomplishing the coolness he tries to evoke with his trench coat and one-liners. He may save the day, but his screw-ups along the way make him, ironically, more human than most other superheroes; we’re talking about a hero whose only catchphrase is “Oh, crap.”
Like this week’s X-Files: I Want to Believe, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a relatively small-budgeted picture with modest expectations. It is a little bland but, in the development of its title character, strays far enough off the beaten path to remain distinct from other superhero films, which is more than I can say for Marvel Studio’s formulaic summer releases Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. If you’ve already seen The Dark Knight and you’re looking to get some more superhero in before the summer ends, the outcasts of Hellboy II could use your support.