I really wanted to love Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and for the first 15 or 20 minutes, it looked like that was exactly what was going to happen. There’s a really clever flashback to Hellboy’s time growing up on an army base (previously only seen in a two-page gag story called “Pancakes”), and a fantastic sequence where the movie’s back-story is delivered via CG puppets. It’s just beautifully done, imaginative, with a distinctive style that still felt very much influenced by Mike Mignola’s style.
It’s followed by a neat title sequence, a cool scene introducing us to the story’s villain, and a creepy sequence at an auction house. It’s all great stuff, and with the monsters, sigils, antiquities scattered about, and sense of impending doom, it nails the tone of a live action version of a Hellboy story.
But then everything kind of starts to unravel as soon as Hellboy shows up. It never really falls apart, but it just kind of deflates. There’s a ton of brilliant stuff throughout, most of it so impressive that I’d recommend the movie to anybody who’s a fan of effects-heavy action movies. And it was much better than the first Hellboy movie. But it still felt uncomfortably “off.”
There’s so much that the movie gets exactly right. The story has the feel of an ancient legend pushed into the modern day, an apocalyptic cataclysm that can only be averted by lots of punching and shooting. There are self-important kings and lords, and untrustworthy guides who work according to rules that we just barely understand. And the sinister versions of elves, fairies, and other creatures, that I think only the team Guillermo del Toro has put together can do justice to. (Ideas and character designs that were hinted at in Pan’s Labyrinth are splayed out all over the screen here).
But the tone was just wrong. After seeing The Devil’s Backbone, I wondered if del Toro’s work kept getting violated by Hollywood. But he has screenwriting credit on Hellboy 2, and I kept feeling like the screenwriting was the weak link. The script understands that Hellboy is ultimately a comedy series, but doesn’t seem to get that it’s supposed to be dry humor. Long stretches of mood and foreboding, followed by a punchline about as un-subtle as you can get. (“Is that… a monkey?” “HE’S GOT A GUN!!!”)
But pretty much every time the movie attempted comedy, it just felt stretched too thin, dragged on too long, or just fell flat. And it kept falling back on the “get a load of this guy!” stuff, reminding us how wacky it is to be watching a movie where a huge tough-talking demon is the good guy. But anybody going into a movie called “Hellboy” has already heard that joke and gotten it; the movie needs to top that. And all the lame story points from the first movie are still shoe-horned into this one: there’s still the unnecessary romance between Hellboy and Liz Sherman, and the Tim Burton-esque theme of freaks who just want to fit in. Plus, there’s way too much Jimmy Kimmel, which is to say, there’s some.
Then again, the tone of Hellboy adaptations varies so much that I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m the one who doesn’t “get” it. The novelizations and short stories seem to think he’s the demon form of Indiana Jones; the videogames seem to think he’s a Mortal Kombat character; and the movies seem to think he’s Lobo crossed with Edward Scissorhands. Maybe that’s the genius of the comics — there’s so little dialogue and so many silent side shots of watching statues or ravens murmuring portents of doom, you’re free to impose whatever character you want on Hellboy.
So as not to end on a down note, I want to point out a few of the things I like: The character of Johann Krauss — a German medium who was trapped in his ectoplasmic form during a seance and now has to live inside a containment suit — is kind of underused in the comics, a cool idea that kind of went nowhere. In the movie, he’s great, a cool suit that’s continually outgassing, and a memorable voice (by Seth McFarlane, surprisingly). The fight scenes were big, dumb, and hard to follow, exactly like they are in the comics. There’s a whole scene with Liz and a character I won’t name but he’s near the end and is like the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth — that whole scene is exactly like a Hellboy comic. And I really loved the brief image of Hellboy’s “true form.”