Wednesday, July 09, 2008

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY Previewed

Selma Blair and Ron Perlman in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY -- locked and loaded for a long-term relationship.

Ever since his first studio picture, MIMIC (1997), writer-director Guillermo del Toro has adopted a well-known game plan, alternating his "serious" independent projects (like CRONOS, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and the much-celebrated PAN'S LABYRINTH) with more "commercial" studio work (like MIMIC, BLADE II and HELLBOY). While this checkerboard approach has always been obvious, del Toro has always rebutted any such simplification of his approach to career, insisting that he always gives 100% of himself to whatever film he happens to be making at the time and that he regards his studio projects as much a part of himself as his more critically acclaimed personal work. This much is usually self-evident, given the consistently high quality of his assignments-for-hire, but his latest film HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is the first pitch-perfect hybrid of the personal and professional del Toro. On one hand, it is a marvelous, highly accessible entertainment; on the other, it is consistently stimulating to the mind and appealing to the eye. It meets all the requirements of summer blockbuster fast food, but it's actually nourishing.
Doug Jones, this generation's Man of a Thousand Faces, returns as "fish stick" Abe Sapien.
There is so much happening on the surface of HELLBOY II that it is possible to overlook the almost classical simplicity of its storyline: the prince of a nearly-extinct race thriving underground, hateful of the humanity which has driven his people there, sets out to reclaim the various separated components of a crown which, once reassembled, will enable him to reactive a dormant Golden Army of thousands of biomechanical warriors and reclaim the surface world for his own kind. The crown, a marvelous living jigsaw of interlocking gears, recalls a long line of biomechanical gizmos in del Toro's work, dating all the way back to his first feature, CRONOS. He and his gifted cameraman Guillermo Navarro plant numerous visual references to other classic fantasies (for example, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice") as well as to other cultural touchstones (John Landis fans will notice a theater marquee showing SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY) and their own past collaborations. Some may notice that one character's fate here visually resonates with that of Ophelia in PAN'S LABYRINTH, but in truth, del Toro and Navarro are old hands at self-referencing: Ophelia's fate echoed that of a character in the original HELLBOY. Just as a master like James Brown had the almost singular ability to cut deeper with each repetition of a groove, del Toro's sourcing of recurring visual tropes and themes seems not at all redundant, nor does it suggest a lack of invention; instead, these things accumulate to enrich the overall complexity of his oeuvre.

Some will inevitably disagree, but I prefer HELLBOY II to the original: it's true that Hellboy himself is less the center of attention, but he and all the characters are more fully realized here, and the world (or should that be "worlds"?) they inhabit seems infinitely more byzantine. The entire cast is at the top of their game, sporting some truly amazing makeup; while Ron Perlman and Doug Jones continue to delight as Hellboy and Abe Sapien, Selma Blair in particular mines appreciable new depths as firestarter Liz Sherman, now secure in her otherly domesticity with the big lug she calls "Red." In addition to some new key characters (like the ectoplasmic Johann Krauss), the film introduces a legion of new monsters and creatures so numerous and inventively designed that their burgeoning presence lends luster to the opening Universal logo, the family crest of the most iconic movie monsters.
Doug Jones again as the film's most awe-inspiring monster: the Angel of Death.

If the film has any shortcomings, they mostly concern a developing synonymity between Hellboy's Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and the likes of THE X-FILES and particularly MEN IN BLACK, as well as some of the same "Mutant vs. Mankind" themes found in the X-MEN series. Similarly, the Golden Army finale was inadvertently telegraphed at the advance screening I attended by a preliminary trailer for Rob Cohen's forthcoming THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, which also involves the climactic reactivation of thousands of undead soldiers -- perhaps likewise inspired by the true worldly wonder of the Terracotta Army of the Emperor of Qin. Universal has a lot of money at stake with both of these films, so it might be to their mutual advantage to keep this trailer and feature separated.

But such small matters fade into insignificance in the light of HELLBOY II's well-balanced package of action, horror, spectacle, warmth (even where its cold-blooded characters are concerned) and humor. Highlights include an attack by a terrifying new breed of monster called Tooth Fairies (feeding on calcium, these cute little devils go for your teeth first); a visit to the Angel of Death; Hellboy's midtown encounter with a towering Lovecraftian monstrosity called an Elemental, a descent into a Troll Bazaar under the Brooklyn Bridge (I couldn't help comparing this sequence to the cantina scene of STAR WARS, not my favorite film series, and thinking to myself "I would even watch a STAR WARS film by this guy!"); and an instant-classic scene in which the lovelorn Abe Sapien and Hellboy cry into their beer while binging on sappy love songs. No one who has ever been a teenager can fail to feel the subtext as these two outsiders grit their teeth and purge their hearts to a Barry Manilow number. And when the song reappears to guide us through the end credits, we feel in the presence of a gifted filmmaker who has also become a great showman.

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY opens in theaters across America on Friday, July 11.

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous6:19 PM

    great post

    ReplyDelete
  2. Honestly I was disappointed respect to the end of this film, because it was so ironic, I mean, it seemed like if the directors were not able to think better ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  3. 9 is my rate for this movie.

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