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Hellboy II : The Golden Army

August 7, 2008

Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II : The Golden Army steps back from the end of the first movie, or, er, forward from its start, depending on your point of view, to Christmas 1955 when the young Red is looking forward to the appearance of a silly supernatural being all clothed in…red. It’s a slight but neat joke from del Toro, but considering you’re just about to have a whole universe of fantastical wonder thrown at you, it’s a nice trick to remind us we already open our minds to all manner of silliness, so just open it a bit more.

OK, a lot more. You see, there is just so much crammed into Army.

The premise, ridiculous as it is, is the simplest part of the whole thing. Hellboy, Red (Ron Perlman), arrived from another dimension in the first film and, having been discovered by the kindly John Hurt character – a scientist at that time working for the Americans – he is now the central figure within the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense; essentially a demon fighting against dark forces. Fighting with him he has the cerebral Abe (Doug Jones), an amphibian/man hybrid, and the lovely Liz (Selma Blair), a pyrokenetic who happens to be his girlfriend. Seriously, that’s the entry-level stuff.

That first film was a rollicking ride, yet did gradually lose a significant amount of impetus after a terrific start and entertaining mid-section where the work of the Bureau was introduced and explored. The finale was kind of afterthought-y, though, and failed to live up to the promises of the first 90 minutes. This time around, del Toro seems determined to eradicate that feeling by making good immediately on the potential of such a bizarre scenario, and going hell for leather with the invention and imagination thrown out onto the screen.

We start with a bedtime story, where John Hurt explains how the world of men set up an uneven deal whereby they would rule the earth, and the fantastical creatures would hide themselves in the shadows. This deal is now under threat at the hands of the evil Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) who is determined to win back the planet by unleashing the indestructible Golden Army. Before he can do this, he needs to secure his sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who has fled to the Bureau for protection. And there the battle lines are drawn. It is at the points where the opposing forces are forced to interface that the fun starts and the true wonder of del Toro’s imagination simply explodes across the senses.

Now, I can’t say I particularly care for Fantasy storylines, and reading the summary above makes me wince just a tad, but that’s not the point. Pan’s Labyrinth, baldly stated (“Ofelia loves fairy tales so much she delves into a mysterious and enchanting world of fairies, fauns, demons with eyes in their hands and giant belching frogs”), wouldn’t do much for me either, but taking that route is a misstep. Del Toro, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, has a vision. And he’s doing his best to put it up there for us all. Even returning to Mimic (which I did when I got home after this) you can see it. Some might say that he’s in love with the dark and the shadows, but I don’t believe that’s right at all, I think it’s the colour hidden by the dark that enthuses him; a sudden trumpet blast of gold, a clatter of red, a glistering dance of white. The man loves his colours, he just shrouds them in darkness to make the effect all the more entrancing.

Admittedly, and this is where Pan lovers may (probably will, if I’m honest) turn their back on Army, the use of humour is fairly heavy-handed throughout. Where Pan used sudden, unpalatable violence to ram its many themes into place, here we have a swathe of fairly crude (though not in a willy-bum-poo way) groan-making gags. Some of it works, but a lot doesn’t, and it can be seriously distracting, although it will keep the kids happy (this labours under the same child-friendly certificate as The Dark Knight). But again, that’s not really, I don’t believe, what this is all about. To prove it, look no further than the scene where Red and Liz meet The Angel of Death. If there’s a more magnificent, jaw-dropping feat of imagination painted on the screen this year I’d be amazed; as an image of beauty and fear all rolled into one it is simply exemplary. It’s del Toro showing his hand as boldly as possible and telling that this is what he is all about; beauty and fear, the wonder of terror, the aesthetics of horror.

I’d put up with any number of crappy jokes to get to that moment, it was actually thrilling (in a Nosferatu way, in a Cabinet of Dr Caligari way) and there’s very little that does that in cinema these days. That’s the del Toro vision, for me, and he can take the meandering routes of fun and frolics and a little bit of farce (a bizarrely acceptable singalong version of Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You) if the destination of all that is a vision that lifts you up in the way that moments within this manage.

Mostly but with genuine moments thrown in.

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