Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy sequel is a simultaneously exhilarating and underwhelming experience due to the idleness of its characters and nebulous subplot elements that contrast against the director's trademark of baroquely drawn details.
Hopelessly macho lug Hellboy (exquisitely played by the one and only Ron Perlman) lives a clandestine existence with his newly pregnant pyrokinetic squeeze Liz (Selma Blair) in the guarded confines of New Jersey's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Dark Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) escalates from a saber-rattling practice routine to go on a violent rampage to obtain the missing part to a crown that will awaken an army of indestructible clockwork soldiers and enable him to rule the world.
Hellboy and his fighting team -- which includes a creature-from-the-black-lagoon-styled pal Abe Sapien and a not-so-welcome German gas-bag named Johann -- do battle with Nuada's weird creatures when they aren't concerned with more mundane chores of romance and pregnancy issues.
The superhero battles aren't choreographed and edited with enough pizzazz to meet heightened audience expectations raised with every new addition to the comic book movie genre. Nonetheless, this is a visually delightful movie packed with enough eccentric character elements to keep it entertaining.
Del Toro co-wrote the screenplay with Hellboy originator/comic book artist Mike Mignola, and yet their union produces a lighter atmosphere than suits the famously dark-toned source material. There's never any question as to the style of del Toro's vision providing the substantive meat for the narrative, as with all of his films, but the story here veers irreparably off-track when Abe Sapien and Hellboy join in a duet of Barry Manilow's "I Can't Smile Without You." The moment comes after a love-struck Sapien pines for Prince Nuada's alter-opposite twin, Princess Nuada (Anna Walton). It's the kind of ironic, sappy faux sentimentality that bends too far left, toward an ostensibly celibate fanboy audience at which the movie is already predisposed to entertain.
Part of the problem stems from the film that del Toro made between the Hellboy movies. An R-rated adult fantasy tale, Pan's Labyrinth presented a sophisticated allegory that modulated between fantasy elements of diabolical creatures in an atmosphere of war that constantly threatened its young female protagonist. It introduced the world to a different type of fantasy film, one that could sustain dark symbolism with a sense of historic significance to emphasize a troubled social condition.
Mike Mignola's Hellboy is a demon delivered to the Earth by Nazi occultists before he was co-opted by the U.S. government to do their bidding. His Thing-like right hand is a giant club, and he has a devil's tail that only accents his leathery skin's red color. Objectively, it seems like an ideal character and milieu for del Toro to dig into with a story that might resonate with the same brand of anti-establishment logic he used for Pan's Labyrinth. But that is not the case. Instead of advancing a superhero genre for adults, Hellboy II is a coming-of-age comic melodrama with spectacular battles that err on the side of Robin Hood sword fights rather than 21st-century fighting techniques.
There is no question that del Toro would have done a better job directing the recent Hulk movie, but this is a visionary director capable of much more than we see on the screen here. It could be that del Toro is a selfish auteur hoarding his best work for his own films rather than this kind of Hollywood gig, but it doesn't suit his talents to create movies for kids.
Somewhere inside, del Toro is a raging genius bursting at the seams to make his own Blue Velvet or Exorcist. His true nature is not suited to making PG-13 movies. Give us the dark, demented and perverse animal biting to get out of his directorial cage. Grade: B
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