I like Hellboy. I like it a lot. Along with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy is one of the only comic-book based, summer blockbuster, superhero extravaganzas with which I am genuinely pleased and which doesn't make me feel as if I need to compromise my cinematic integrity to watch and enjoy it. However, I don't like Hellboy because it transcends its comic-book roots (it does not) nor do I like it because it is a serious film (it is not). I like Hellboy because even though del Toro understood the kind of movie he was making - a campy, loud and silly story - he nevertheless poured enough love and attention into it to make it thoroughly enjoyable. He took seriously the fact that he wasn't making a serious film and, as a result, delivered what I think to be one of the better superhero stories, one with a great emotional story and some spectacular sequences. There is a way to make big, loud action flicks without forcing everyone in the audience to pretend that they are 8-year-olds, and del Toro found it.
With Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro, coming right off his critical success with Pan's Labyrinth (which most definitely was a serious film and which I think was the best film of 2007), seems to have found that way again and delivered an action/adventure film that, without compromising the audience's intellect, is just as loud, just as silly and, most importantly, just as fun as its predecessor. Almost entirely disregarding the source material, del Toro has created a worthy sequel, one which remains faithful to the characters established in the first film and which should please most fans. This time around, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Liz (Selma Blair) and Abe Sapian (Doug Jones) and the rest of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense face off against an elven prince (Luke Goss) who is intent of ending the centuries long truce between humanity and the world's magical creatures by awakening the legendary and titular golden army, a mechanical/magical army which he will use to eradicate humanity. Hellboy, caught between allegiances to the human world that raised but ultimately rejects him and to the fantastic world to which he more obviously belongs, confronts not only his friends and enemies but his own relationship to them.
If it sounds as if Hellboy 2 takes place in a different world than the first one did, that's because it does. While the characterizations remain intact, the world they live in is much different this time around. It is as if the grammars of Hellboy and Hellboy 2 are essentially the same but are used in the two films to say very different things. Hellboy told a story of arcane prophecy, occult ritual and of the intrusion of a supernatural element into an otherwise recognizably ordinary world; in other words, it for the most part followed the conventions of most supernaturally themed thriller and superhero stories. The Golden Army, however, tells the story of overlapping worlds, of a human world and a fantastical one, a story of elves, trolls and goblins and of a war between them and humanity. The Golden Army is more closely aligned with conventions of high fantasy, with the mythos of Tolkien or ever J.K. Rowling. In fact, the film's opening scene, in which Dr. Broom (John Hurt) reads a foreshadowing bedtime story to an adolescent Hellboy, sets up The Golden Army's new fairy-tale sensibility, a piece of thematic continuity that perhaps connects Hellboy 2 more closely with Pan's Labyrinth than with the first Hellboy and which, I think, will segue nicely into del Toro's upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.
The film isn't perfect, however. As we can see from it's centerpiece, the Mos Eisly-themed Troll's Market scene, The Golden Army has a tendency to be a tad indulgent, especially in the creature department. Of course, del Toro's indulgences give us monsters like the one pictured above so they are, for the most part, awe-inspiring and quite easily forgiven. Perhaps they should even be encouraged. After all, no one seems to come up with great looking monsters like del Toro. Pan's Labyrinth's Pale Man is perhaps one of the best, and scariest, monsters I've seen in a long, long time. Another flaw, however, which is also a flaw in the first Hellboy, is that The Golden Army seems a bit too disjointed, as if it were merely moving from one set piece to the next, which, I suppose, is what a film like this normally does. Hellboy battles monsters in skyscrapers, on the streets of New York, and in ancient underground cities. He punches, shoots and stabs them. These scenes are often exhilarating; the confrontation between Hellboy and the elven prince is ferocious and quite spectacular; but overall I would have liked a bit more story tying all these scenes together. Del Toro is a first-rate story-teller so I would have liked to have seen a bit more of it here. But these criticisms are minor and, unless you are even more given over to cinematic snobbery than I, will probably not detract from your enjoyment of the film.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army isn't the There Will Be Blood of comic-book movies; it's not a new high-water mark; it probably won't win any awards. It doesn't reinvent anything. What it does do, however, is deliver a solid two hours or pure entertainment and uncompromised fun. It's the kind of movie I want to own and be able to watch over and over. Delo Toro revels in this franchise in ways that his serious high-brow efforts like Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone simply do not allow him to do. In the end, any evaluation of this film will probably be based simply enough on whether or not you had fun watching it. I had fun. I had a lot of fun. In a summer of disappointing and lackluster superhero and adventure flicks, Hellboy 2 gets it all right.