Friday, March 11, 2011

del Toro Time: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Guillermo del Toro)

It was time for a bigger budget. More action, more special effects, more monsters, more characters, more of everything people loved about 2004’s Hellboy. Guillermo del Toro would once again serve as screenwriter with the aid of Hellboy’s father, Mike Mignola, but this time he would be aided by all the prosthetics, makeup and computer wizardry money could buy. Much of what made the original installment such a wonderfully coloured comic book film was not merely del Toro's visual flourishes. It was equally the director’s understanding of Hellboy’s nature and of his uncomfortable, emotionally compromising place in the world he inhabited. Would del Toro continue to explore this venue or would this potentially great franchise suffer from the dangerous ‘overstayed welcome’ syndrome so many sequels are afflicted with?

Hellboy II: The Golden Army sees the realization of a story Hellboy (Ron Perlman) was told by his father when he just a child (not Ron Perlman). Long ago raged a battle between humans and elves for land and power. The instigators of this conflict were, unsurprisingly, the humans, a species that frequently falls prey to hatred and desire to consume more and more until nothing is left. To turn the tide in the war, the elves made use of a special mechanical army, courtesy of the trolls. This legion of behemoths responded only to he or she who wore the special golden crown that controls them. The unstoppable soldiers formed the Golden Army. Only after much bloodshed was a truce agreed upon by the warring factions. The elfish prince, Nuada (Luke Goss), was determined not to give in to a truce with humans, whom he deeply mistrusted. Now, in the present day, Prince Nuada has returned from a long exile to finish what his father, the elf king, never did: use the Golden Army to rid the world of the poison known as humanity. His twin sister, princess Nuala (Anna Walton), with whom he has a special, telekinetic and physiological bond (is Nuada is cut, both he and Nuala bleed…), is not in favour of this plan and soon joins the ranks of Hellboy, Abe Sapien (this time played in costume and voiced by Doug Jones), Liz (Selma Blair) and new boss Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane), a gas like substance who lives inside of a glass helmet attached to a body resembling old deep sea diving equipment.

Let there be no misconceptions about The Golden Army. Its scope, both in terms of action set pieces and the fantastical worlds it creates, surpasses much of what was seen in the first Hellboy. The director, not one to shy away from indulging in the weird and off beat, really goes to town here by throwing a great many new creatures and locations. Apart from the more obvious visual splendours these monsters provide the film with, many are laced with greater thematic ideas. The titular golden army for instances represents the modern mechanization and increasing sophistication of warfare, more specifically the ability to wreak havoc and obliterate one’s foes at a safer distance than ever before. Destroy whatever you please at the press of a button. At one point Prince Nuada unleashes upon Hellboy and his friends a tree god, a multi-story tall creature resembling a plant. At one point the tree monster is down for the count, but just before Hellboy serves the coup de grâce, Nuada reminds the protagonist of the similarities between himself and his defeated foe, most importantly that they are the last of their respective kinds. Tree god, last of its kind, a movie that has played on Man’s embarrassing nature of taking what’s not his and being destructive…are you thinking green yet? Needless to say, the creatures mentioned above are stunning to look at, with an incomparable amount of little details that give them personalities. The computer effects that drive their aesthetics and movements are top notch. 

A much welcome fact about the monsters in The Golden Army is how not all of them rely on CG trickery in order to be brought to life. In one of the film’s most impressive sequences, Hellboy, Abe and Johann enter a troll market to find a map that they hope will lead them to the location of the Golden Army. Virtually everything in the frame exists in reality. Perhaps more essential than all else, the bizarre beings that stroll through the market are the result of hard work done by the costume designers and live actors who put on the masks, prosthetics and fancy clothing. It was relieving to witness a movie filled to the brim with imaginary creatures that the actors could actually touch, feel and punch in the face. The art of making monsters in work shops is not as respected in this day and age as it was several decades earlier.The highlight must be Prince Nuada's faithful troll sidekick Wink.

All this talk about the intricate beasts which emanated from the minds of del Toro and Mignola, but no thoughts about the plot thus far. Let us get to the heart of the matter therefore. While the decision to take an entirely different would have been feasible, the writers opt to build on one of the more critical themes of the previous film, that which deals with Hellboy’s outsider status in the world. The itch to reveal himself to those he serves and protects diligently (all while never wasting an opportunity to lace a scene with his special version of charm) has sharpened its bite, and Hellboy has recently been allowing photographs of him to be taken. Early on in the story, our hero finally makes the jump (literally) from being a shadow player to full front star for an audience dying to see him. Or so he thought. Just as Nuada believes, the humans soon show disdain towards this freak of nature that is Hellboy. It cannot be easy to accept that one’s saviour is a demon, that just does not sound right after all. The humans fear and hate whatever is not like themselves, and now Hellboy, who still acknowledges that saving humanity is a positive gesture at the end of the day, is left to ponder once again on his feelings about himself and his place in life. 

The sequel also further develops his relationship with fire cracker Liz Sherman, who has unexpectedly become pregnant. This little reality is kept from Hellboy until a late stage in the story, and the woman’s nervousness at revealing the news, coupled with a few strained moments between the two, means that the couple go through a bit of tough love. Just as Eugene Levy explained in American Pie 3, it is called ‘making love’ for a reason. It has to be worked on. Unfortunately, Selma Blair happens to be the weak link among the starring cast members. Her low key performance in the first movie was correct because of the stage the character was in at that time. With this picture, the script asks some more energy from Liz Sherman, but Blair is not the most convincing actress to play someone going through a vast range of emotions. The Golden Army put her limitations as a performer front and center.  She can be good at certain things, but here she was too low key for what the story demanded.

Doug Jones, on the other hand, fairs quite well as Abe Sapien, who continues to display intelligence and a nerdy sort of charm, which seems to make him a perfect fit with princess Nuala. The two have solid chemistry, with a lot of credit going to the performers breathing behind all the makeup. Last but not least is Seth McFarlane whose voice acting is rather good for the uniquely strange Johann Krauss a bossy, obnoxious leader who is quick to frown whenever Hellboy goes against the grain.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a satisfying addition to the Hellboy film storyline. In many respects it is a superior film. The action is far more intense in this movie than in the first and the character of Johann Krauss is an entertaining addition to the oddball crew of heroes. The only downside is when the film wants to hit emotional notes with the Hellboy-Liz relationship. Perlam delivers but Blair much less so. I understood what sort of character she is playing, but it just didn’t mesh as well as what the other cast members were doing. Nonetheless, del Toro is rarely one to let his fans down. The Golden Army comes easily recommended.


thevoid99 said...

Excellent review though I kind of disagree with you on the Hellboy-Liz subplot.

I do love the comedic moments such as Hellboy and Abe getting drunk and listening to Barry Manilow of all people. What I love about that scene is how much personal investment del Toro put into as something I'm sure he's experienced with his own pals.

I also loved the study of Hellboy wanting to be accepted by humans and how a misunderstanding led him to feel alone.

I think it's the kind of the film that Hollywood needs to do more. An entertaining film with characters audience care about with a strong story. I loved that animated sequence about the story of the Golden Army.

I really think del Toro was able to broaden his palette more. I wish he can more luck in developing projects and get them going.

edgarchaput said...

I'm not sure of del Toro needs to broaden his palette more. The broad comedy found in 'The Golden Army' works well enough, and it was interesting to see the director work with a huge budget (with the results paying off), but I kind of like his work more when he does his own little thing, à la 'Cronos' or 'Pan's Labyrinth.' This was fun, it was well done, but I hope he does some more horror related films from now on.

I don't think there are any plans for a Hellboy 3 anyways, right?

thevoid99 said...

Well, I think the plans for a third Hellboy is in the back-burner as he's just lost another project he wanted to do. Now he's going to do something else with Tom Cruise although that might be in trouble due to the recent tsunami.

Anonymous said...

This is easily my favorite comic book film. The great visuals, imaginative world and strong storytelling make it a top notch film I fall in love all over again every time I watch it.

I know a lot of people don't like Selma Blair, but I think she's supposed to be awkward and aloof, which for some reason I think people push on her performance instead of on the character.