Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result.
Long ago, when the Earth was green, mankind and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could complete their directive. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections. Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.
In a summer already overloaded with brash, bravado cinematic turns, Hellboy 2 has got to be one of the biggest and ballsiest. Stamped with a kind of genius rare in today’s Tinsel Town terrain, Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro has fashioned a kind of supersonic spectacle, an intensely engaging epic that finds a way to keep both its scope and entertainment value legitimate and yet larger than life. Loosely based on the Mike Mignola comics, and clearly the product of its director’s outsized originality, we are treated to two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.
Del Toro has always been a geek, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling at his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.
Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film.
Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.
There is a clever, almost kitschy way in which Hellboy 2: The Golden Army delivers its delights. It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat. When Hellboy battles a massive earth Elemental, it’s Cloverfield conceived as an old fashioned serial cliffhanger, imperiled infant and all. Indeed, Del Toro keeps the riff references and homages coming, touching on the entire history of horror and fantasy in just under two hours of spellbinding cinema. And we sense the director continuously building on his legend, opening the door for a brain melting final installment/trequel sometime after he completes his trip through Tolkein.
And frankly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more knowledgeable guy. It’s rare when Hollywood gives the eccentric and iconoclastic a chance to shine, let along a second one. One misstep and you’re usually sitting in entertainment exile, wondering where your creative cache went. In this case, through a sheer force of will and an unreal amount of invention, Guillermo Del Toro has rewritten the rulebook. All that post-Pan Oscar cred didn’t hurt, but there’s got to be some substance to support a repeat performance. Apparently, this filmmaker has more than enough on his plate to feed an imagery-starved fanbase. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army may say ‘Hell-friggin’-yes’ to another excess time and time again, but when the meal is this ridiculously rich and refined, we’ll gladly indulge. In a summer soaked in spectacle, this dish is just divine.