Related Articles: Movies, All

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Beasts of Burden

Life is never easy for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense’s human minions. Saddled with the already daunting task of keeping tabs on the government’s worst-kept secret -- a hulking, cigar-chomping demon known as Hellboy (Ron Perlman) -- they seem hopelessly ill-equipped to defend themselves against the beasts that go bump in the night.

In Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 adaptation of Mike Mignola’s popular comic, they were torn limb from limb by overgrown insects. In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the bureau’s flesh-and-blood agents are devoured by spider-like parasites with a hankering for human teeth.

If their duties seem thankless, consider the quandary facing mutants like Hellboy, whose square-jawed scowl aptly suggests a prickly disposition, and his incendiary girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair). With their cool-headed amphibious comrade Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) in tow, del Toro’s superhuman peacekeepers are charged with protecting a public that considers them monsters. They police their own kind, only to retreat to a clandestine, Batcave-style lair where they hide, almost apologetically, from society. As if to stress the indignity, it’s in Jersey.

While the first Hellboy found its hero struggling to accept himself, sawed-off horns and all, The Golden Army is more of a coming-out party, as the lobster-red menace begins to embrace his roots with something resembling pride. It’s about time -- Hellboy deserves better than a life spent in shadows -- but it presents a soul-stirring dilemma when Nuada (Luke Goss), fabled prince of the forest creatures, returns to modern-day Manhattan to lead a revolt against mankind.

Should Hellboy reject his fellow freaks to defend those who treat him no better than Frankenstein’s monster? It’s a legitimate head-scratcher that lends The Golden Army (named for Nuada’s legion of assassins) real emotional resonance. Iron Man and Batman may be human at their baggage-heavy cores, but they are never as emotionally accessible as Hellboy, who’s just as likely to be belting out a Tecate-soaked rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” as body-slamming a troll.

Indeed, del Toro’s story, which tempers the gloomy threat of a holocaust with the in-your-face swagger Perlman brings to his role as a brazen trash-talker who’s never met a problem his stony fists couldn’t aggravate, is as much a sly romantic comedy as a no-holds-barred adventure. Clearly, the Mexican-born director has a deep affection for both his characters and the world of gods and fairy-tale monsters, and it translates into a rich, sophisticated sequel that actually improves on the original.

It is also a film whose visual majesty recalls and even surpasses del Toro’s last feat of the imagination, the Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth. He envisions startlingly ornate universes in the darkest, most forbidding corners of our world, beneath bridges and in abandoned subway tunnels. And yet his lavish sets and hellish demons would be little more than demented eye candy were it not for his gift for storytelling and his deep respect for the power of fantasy.

During a season filled with superhero adventures, Hellboy II stands alone as one of the year's best films.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars