Call it the Pan’s Labyrinth effect. Brimming with confidence and new ideas, writer/director Guillermo del Toro has made Hellboy II a different kind of film compared to its predecessor — itself a satisfying development. The first film was necessarily an origin story, which can be detrimental to a superhero movie, but director Guillermo del Toro and leading man Ron Perlman, just visible glaring out from inside his demon-red character makeup, tackled it with smarts and heart, emphasizing the conflict between Hellboy’s ostensible destiny — he’s meant to be the catalyzing agent for Armageddon — and the new home he’s made among humans who need his protection. The new movie moves Hellboy’s inner friction forward in logical, intriguing ways, forwarding a notion that must eventually occur to every great, sensitive curmudgeon: what if the human race isn’t worth saving?
The character line-up has been tweaked for this second pass at the material. FBI agent John Myers — a big black hole swallowing story space in the first film — has been wisely jettisoned, replaced by an expanded role for the slightly less tiresome Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat who’s repeatedly made to look foolish and cowardly by the brash, self-confident Hellboy. More on the money is the introduction of Johann Krauss, a sentient cloud of vapor that’s kept sealed inside an airtight suit and speaks with an uptight German accent (voiced by Seth MacFarlane). The performances have also been tuned up this time around. Perlman is a little less self-consciously gruff, and Selma Blair, having spent much of the first film moping around a mental institution, takes advantage of the opportunity to mope around the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense instead. At least it’s a step in the right direction. And expert creature-thesp Doug Jones actually gets to voice his portrayal of the gilled fish-man Abe Sapien this time around. (He was dubbed by David Hyde Pierce in the first film.)
That’s all good. What frustrated me was the amount of time del Toro spends on run-of-the-mill scenes of sub-Tolkien exposition. At about 110 minutes, Hellboy II feels significantly tighter than Hellboy, but nearly a whole reel of film goes by before we even see the main characters. For starters, we get an extraneous flashback scene with Lil’ Hellboy, in which his adoptive pappy (John Hurt) conveniently explains the backstory of the Golden Army in voiceover — it’s a fearsome, Apocalyptic regiment of mechanical soldiers that lies dormant underground as a result of a pact between humans and elves. Fortunately, the story is accompanied by CG animation that’s surprisingly charming because it’s so low-key. (Del Toro seems to have assimilated some of the best lessons that the makers of great video games can offer CG filmmakers, including the fact that photorealism remains overrated.) After that, it’s time for more backstory, in scenes that introduce the Nuada siblings, a ferocious, blade-wielding prince (Luke Goss from erstwhile British boy band Bros) and his kinder sister (Anna Walton). Expressing his contempt for mankind, Prince Nuada has slain the Elf King and intends to extinguish them by leading the Golden Army himself — and thus ruling the world.
This bugs me because it’s the kind of mildly interesting information you could have somebody explain in walk-and-talk conversations later in the film, rather than devoting the crucial opening sequences to it, but at least del Toro has managed to weave these new characters fairly gracefully into the fabric of the film. Hellboy II is, more explicitly and insistently than its predecessor, a love story, and the presence of Princess Nuada gives Abe a beautiful woman to pine for. And that opens up new possibilities in del Toro’s world. The scene depicting a lovesick Abe Sapien and a romantically flummoxed Hellboy pounding sixes of Tecate and singing along with a Barry Manilow song from a cheesy compilation CD is funny because it’s pathetic — the more schematic Pan’s Labyrinth had no moments that were so recognizably human.
Often, where del Toro fails to connect is when he goes for humor, which is a liability with this stuff. Material that’s written funny doesn’t play funny. For example, there are scenes early in the film that give us a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes at the B.P.R.D. that are clearly meant to play in the mode of Men in Black, but there’s a blandness to the staging and timing that falls flat. Jeffrey Tambor’s performance probably suffers for that, since his character is clearly written as a comic stereotype of a bureaucrat, but he comes across more as a pure irritant — a barnacle that one of the film’s Lovecraftian creatures would try to scrape off as it rises out of the muck. Fortunately, Perlman’s line deliveries often generate their own wry, sardonic friction, because if there’s anything del Toro doesn’t have, it’s a light touch. He’s not Peter Jackson. (That’s why he’s not an ideal choice to direct Tolkien, but that’s another subject.)
But heavy can be the right touch, too. The film doesn’t roar to life until about the halfway mark, just after a too-ostentatious underground sequence that recalls the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars has run its course. At the bidding of Prince Nuada, a tiny hatchling drops through a sewer grate and quickly grows to adulthood in the filthy water under the Brooklyn streets, bursting through the asphalt, rearing up to vertiginous heights, and setting about the business of killing Hellboy. Hellboy wins the fight (spoiler!) and, as he levels his BFG at the glowing, brain-like pod near where the creature’s head should be, he hears Nuada hissing at him over his shoulder, appealing for a recalibration of the hero’s moral compass. Pull the trigger, his argument goes, and you’re destroying the last creature of its kind in the world — obliterating a unique and majestic creation, unlike the too-identical humans skittering across the pavement below, building highways and parking lots, subdivisions and shopping malls. It’s a metaphysical environmentalist’s argument for the preservation of supernatural species, and what’s interesting is that you can see Hellboy turning the idea over in its head, giving it due consideration. It may be the only time in genre film history that a join-me-and-we-shall-rule-the-galaxy-together speech has been so credible, and so darkly persuasive.
But the big red guy does pull the trigger, and what happens next is so extraordinarily lyrical and unexpected that I could hardly believe what I was seeing — it’s a moment of beauty as a respite from violence, the kind of flourish that you hope to find in every big-budget Hollywood blockbuster and which is all the more welcome because you’re so often left disappointed. (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie marred by a lot of silliness, but that startling, majestic image that comes at the very end of the atomic-test sequence, showing Indy silhouetted against a mushroom cloud, is the only recent equivalent I can think of.) It’s jarring because it’s a sudden moment of grace and quiet in a movie that has so far pretended to be graceless, and it’s effective for the same reason.
At that point, Hellboy II settles into a comfortable groove, and a couple of passages are genuinely grin-inducing — not only the aforementioned Barry Manilow singalong, but also a beautifully executed scene that takes place in the B.P.R.D. locker room as Hellboy and Krauss taunt each other. It’s up and down from there, and Hellboy suffers an injury that takes him out of action for a long stretch of the third act — the kind of setback that a film like this, which is at its best only when Perlman is close to the foreground, can hardly afford. But it all eventually rolls into a climax that features fairly credible action, including a final fight scene that’s a few steps above the usual two-guys-beating-the-crap-out-of-each-other business that too often ends movies like this. Much of what happens here is frustratingly routine, but the high points are worth making time for. B