Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Review #0032

Despite its beasties, despite its Saturn Award for Best Horror Film (!), Hellboy II is a children's fantasy, not unlike Pan's Labyrinth, but much lighter. It sports a PG-13 rating, and its content is accordingly harmless. Nonetheless, it features potent action sequences, larger-than-life cartoon characters, awesome special effects, and a straitforward, eco-friendly narrative that will delight the entire family, while its outstanding artistic quality has the potential to attract the art-house crowd.

Halfway between two very popular sub-genres (the superhero film and the Tolkienesque fantasy film), the script pits big red machine Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his crew of misfits (pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz, amphibian psychic Abe Sapien, and newcomer Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic entity confined to a humanoid containment suit) against renegade Prince Nuada, an elven warrior hellbent on piecing together a magical crown that will allow him control over "the golden army", a group of 4,900 indestructible, mechanical soldiers that he wishes to unleash upon mankind, thus saving dying Earth from its nefarious influence. The subplot involves a budding romance between Sapien and Princess Nuala (Nuada's sister and yin equivalent) and the evolving relationship between pregnant Liz and unlikely father Hellboy.

The canevas for this film is a children's bedtime story told by Hellboy's surrogate father during the opening sequence. And as all such tales, it entails a moral about love, personal responsibility, and self-sacrifice, which thankfully avoids being too preachy or melodramatic. But despite the apparent rigidity of such a frame, the film manages to stay fresh thanks mostly to some transcendental art direction that never fails to stimulate our imagination. Every creature in the film, be it CGI or good old latex and papier-mâché, is not only superbly crafted and lively, but very much unique. Mr. Wink, troll assistant to Prince Nuada (whose projectile fist almost puts Japanese cyborgs to shame), the cute but deadly tooth fairies, the towering tree god, the angel of Death, the huge, globular golden warriors and wisecracking, ectoplasmic Krauss are all living excrescences of director Guillermo Del Toro's fertile mind and impeccable work ethic. They all live and breath in the singular universe he has created, which is also lovingly crafted. The set-pieces are all grandiose, particularly the troll market, with its appreciable array of monstrous creatures, big and small, but all true to life. All in all, it is Del Toro's trademark attention to details and his somptuous, innovative compositions which propel the film.

And although Hellboy II features mostly teenage-oriented characters with teenage problems (clumsy romances and desires to belong...), it has just the right amount of humor and fierce action sequences to please older crowds. Sure, the jokes are all harmless, and the fights bloodless, but their zany energy is contagious nonetheless. Actor Luke Goss (Prince Nuada, but also Jared Nomak in Del Toro's Blade II) supposedly trained for half-a-year before taking on his role. Now, that's the kind of dedication that is obvious in every scene of Hellboy II, and particularly in the Prince's proficiency with his cool knife/spear. But also in the desire to give the viewers some top-quality entertainment, without cutting any corners. Thus we have minutely-choreographed, gorgeously-composed, and lenghty action scenes, but also all kinds of exciting props such as Hellboy's hand-cannon (dubbed "Big Baby") and Krauss' containment suit, from which he can escape and wreak havoc on unsuspecting foes. Hellboy II's ample budget (85,000,000) is entirely visible onscreen thanks to some outstanding craftmanship and a lot of hard work.

3,5/5: for being a lovingly-crafted, original, and mighty entertaining, that is an exemplary genre film.