Review: 'Hellboy II: The Golden Army'

Another bulked-up superhero returns, accompanied by an endless parade of freaks and creepy-crawlies, to fight an otherworldly army.

Another reluctant superhero cometh. Hellboy is certainly more gung-ho than, say, Hancock, but that's not saying much. He's the average Joe of comic-book behemoths, and in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," he looks as if he'd rather be kicking back than battling beasties.

Despite its comic-book trappings – it's based on the Dark Horse comic books created by Mike Mignola – "Hellboy II," even more so than its predecessor, "Hellboy," resembles nothing so much as an art film phantasmagoria.

This should not be surprising since the director of the series is Guillermo del Toro, best known among cinéastes for "Pan's Labyrinth," a sinister fairy tale set in Fascist Spain that won the 2006 Oscar for best foreign film. He's also noted for such high-style Hollywood bloodbaths as "Blade II." In other words, he's an auteur who likes to have it both ways.

In "Hellboy II," del Toro, who co-scripted with Mignola, attempts to weld the bam-pow studio mind-set to a more expressive artistic sensibility. The result is like "Pan's Labyrinth" on steroids. This is not entirely intended as a compliment. For one thing, "Pan's Labyrinth" is a movie that, for all its flavor, doesn't hold up as a masterpiece. In retrospect it resembles a del Toro freak show amped up with sociopolitical smarts.

"Hellboy II" doesn't take itself nearly as seriously but, like its predecessor, overdoses on big galumphing goblins and trolls and creepy-crawlies. Since many of these uglies are inventively designed, starting with Hellboy himself, the film is far from a washout. But del Toro doesn't quite know when to call a halt to the pageant. It's been said that you don't know what is enough until you know what is more than enough. "Hellboy II" is more than enough.

Ron Perlman once again plays Hellboy, and his bulked-up physique, the color of red clay, is as imposing as ever. His girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), who has the convenient ability to turn herself into flame, is pregnant by him – though she withholds the news for a long time. As bickering fun couples go, these two don't exactly rival Tracy and Hepburn, but Blair's caustic line deliveries are incongruously droll and Perlman, sounding like George Clooney, is amusingly gruff. His Hellboy is like a 1940s hard-boiled noir hero who somehow mutated into a crimson behemoth with a sledgehammer right fist and a long sinuous tail. He's filed off his horns to play down his demonic origins, and why not? Hellboy, remember, is the good guy.

Not so his adversary Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), an albino-ish nasty who looks as if he might have stepped out of a David Bowie roadshow circa 1975. Nuada wants to restore the hegemony of the Golden Army, an ancient sect that has been subdued for centuries by humans. Aiding Nuada in his nefariousness is Mr. Wink, who looks like the offspring of King Kong and a giant trash compactor. He's so gross he's likeable.

Since Hellboy is working on behalf of humans to clean up this mess, he finds himself conflicted at times about his status. Shouldn't he feel more at home among the Mr. Winks of the world? Fortunately, del Toro doesn't mine this dilemma. This is not, after all, a movie that can bear much in the way of identity crises.

Besides, del Toro's identity crisis is plenty for one movie. He's trying to be a schlockmeister and a poet all at the same time. His imagery simultaneously draws on pulp kid stuff and Gustave Dore. Whatever its borrowings, the fetid and feverish "Hellboy II" comes across as an original. But being original is not always the same thing as being wonderful. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language.)

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