Monday, July 14, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

By Elise Nakhnikian

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m in no way part of the Hellboy demographic. In fact, I never even knew the big lunk existed until I saw the humongous line for Hellboy at the 2004 South by Southwest film festival. So when I say that I only liked director Guillermo del Toro’s Big Red One, that doesn’t mean you won’t love it if you’re a fan of the first one and/or the comic book series.

What finally drew me to Hellboy was my admiration for del Toro’s two tales of the Spanish civil war: The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, and I found a lot of similarities between the four. All are beautifully shot and meticulously art-directed yet sometimes hard to watch, showing sympathetic characters in mortal danger or excruciating pain. All share an open-hearted embrace of humanity that leaves you buoyant with hope. They all contain creepy creatures from some supernatural netherworld who cross the barrier into contemporary time and space (in Hellboy II, the battleground is the streets of present-day Manhattan and Brooklyn). And fighting those creatures – or working with them – is a hero or heroine brave enough to look horror straight in the eyes, even if those eyes are embedded in its wings or the tips of its fingers.

Which brings us to Hellboy. There are plenty of superheroes whose greatest battles are with their own demons, but only Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a demon. Summoned from Hell by the Nazis in 1944 to destroy Earth, he was saved by an expert in paranormal phenomena who could see that he was “just a boy” and raised him as such. Now a red-blooded (and red-skinned) American guy, he lives in the basement of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a secret agency disguised as a waste management plant and stashed safely out of the limelight in Trenton.

Hellboy’s main companions are his girlfriend, Liz (a wooden Selma Blair), who struggles to channel her humiliating habit of bursting into flames when she’s angry, and his best friend, Abe. Abe,who’s played by the elegant Doug Jones, a del Toro favorite who played both Pan and the albino wraith with eyes in its fingertips in Pan’s Labyrinth, is a fish-man who spends most of his time in a tank.

Liz is human and can pass for “normal” when she isn’t on fire, but that option’s not open to Hellboy, with his beet-red skin, sawed-off horns, huge stone hand, and Schwarzenegger-squared physique. So he doesn’t get out much – except when the bureau calls on him to kick some supernatural tail, which he does with grim relish.

Hellboy is a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling, cannon-toting, authority-touting bad boy, the Dirty Harry of the netherworld, but he’s a little more well-rounded than most other movie hard guys. The self-mocking, smart-ass humor that runs through the Hellboy movies like coolant through a radiator lets us see that pose as a mask rather than taking it at face value. We know what a geeky, needy, sheltered kid Hellboy used to be, and we see the childlike insecurity and hunger for approval that fuel him still. And so, when he poses for the news cameras after beating down yet another set of monsters, the heroic half-sneer thing he does is kind of funny – and endearing.

It’s endearing mostly because the crowds don’t love Hellboy: in fact, most people mock or revile him. Coming on the heels of Iron Man, the story of an American arms dealer trying to undo the harm he has done in the world, and Hancock, another story about a superhero who creates a lot of collateral damage and is generally hated or mocked, it’s enough to make you wonder: Could our superhero movies be telling us something about America’s image in the rest of the world?

Del Toro has worked with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro on nearly all his films, and it’s easy to see why. The underworlds these two create together are densely textured, lived-in-looking realms, their velvety blacks shot through with shafts of light that illuminate murky yet detailed depths.

But the art direction is weaker than in other del Toro movies. While there are plenty of clever visual effects and memorable monsters, the special effects aren’t always all that special. A troll market has the synthetically busy, lifeless feel of a too-fussily designed CGI scene, for instance, and the head of an obsequious chamberlain (also played by Jones) looks like a papier mache bag that’s short a few coats of paste. The soundtrack leans too much on ominous mood music and expository pop songs – though Hellboy and Abe’s off-key duet to a Barry Manilow song is sweet. And a lot of what happened just felt too familiar to me, with echoes from some other movies – particularly Men in Black and Lord of the Rings – ringing loudly enough to interfere with my enjoyment.

But the main thing that kept me from surrendering to this movie was that I never believed Hellboy could get seriously hurt, let alone die. It’s not enough to keep hearing about what’s at stake in a movie like this: you have to really feel it.

Without that, epic battles just play like championship wrestling matches.

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