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Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)

Crafty World of War

I might just give up this movie-reviewing thing. It's bad enough that my tastes tend to run contrary to popular opinion, but now I can't even rely on those tastes. Case in point: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army--a movie that I hated so much on initial viewing that I nearly had a panic attack in the theatre, but which now holds a special place in my heart as a fun-but-flawed film.

The best part about disliking a movie to that degree is that it's easy to block it out of my mind. So when I sat down to watch it again yesterday morning, I enjoyed a magical feeling of discovery; not re-discovery, just discovery. In the three years since my first pass at Golden Army, I'd totally forgotten about one of the central characters, and was genuinely surprised by a key, late-picture development.

I think my issue at the time was that it came out shortly after Pan's Labyrinth, a masterpiece that, like Golden Army, was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Though one is a Spanish-language horror-fantasy about revolution and childhood and the other is a big-budget, brand-X X-Men, both films share key elements that I can easily see becoming repetitive if viewed back-to-back. Golden Army also hews too closely, structurally, to the first Hellboy, and features two instances of the suspension-of-disbelief-killing Brawl Bubble (more on that in a minute).

The sequel begins with a flashback to Hellboy's childhood. His guardian, Dr. Broom (John Hurt) reads the hellspawn-with-a-heart-of-gold a bedtime story involving an ancient war between mankind and elfkind. The elves unleashed a massive army comprised of unstoppable, golden clockwork creatures that all but eradicated the humans. Eventually, both sides reached a truce, and the gold crown that controlled the army was split into three parts--one to be guarded by man, two to be guarded by the Elf King (Roy Dotrice) and his daughter, Nuala (Anna Walton).

Flash forward to present day. Nuala's petulant twin brother, Nuada (Luke Goss) has returned from centuries of exile with a plan to track down the missing crown piece and resurrect the golden army. He sees mankind's dominion over Earth as a threat to all mystical creatures--who are forced to live in elaborate underground societies and mask their appearance with spells when venturing into our world.

Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and the other members of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense learn of Nuada's return following an attack on a ritzy auction house, where the elf prince unleashed a horde of tooth fairies on unsuspecting bidders (one of the items up for grabs was the human crown component). When the elf king refuses to accept the third piece, Nuada kills him and asks his sister to help him reclaim the planet. She runs away and, through a series of events too complicated to list here without a full plot synopsis, finds herself in the hands of the Bureau--and in the arms of its resident fish-faced genius, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones).

Aside from Abe's romance with Nuala and the revelation that Hellboy's girlfriend and fellow agent, Liz (Selma Blair) is pregnant, there is little structural variance between the sequel and its predecessor. We have the conquest-minded villain who persists on getting Hellboy to join him; the introduction of a new agent to the team who can't be trusted--until he proves himself to be "one of the guys" (in this case, del Toro mixes the social awkwardness of Part One's Agent Myers with the steam-and-clockwork-man aesthetic of its henchman, Kroenen, to create Agent Krauss (John Alexander and James Dodd, voiced in cartoonish German accent by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane); and, finally, the Epic Battle to Save the World, which goes on way, way too long.

Those are the broad strokes, but, honestly, if you pressed "Play" on both movies simultaneously and turned away for a few minutes, it'd be easy to forget which is which. Fortunately, del Toro beefs up the characterizations, now that he's got all that pesky origin stuff out of the way. Liz is concerned that Hellboy's temper and their life of constant danger might not be compatible with raising a healthy child; Abe finds a kindred second-banana spirit in the first person to take a romantic interest in him. His and Nuala's arc is the most refreshing difference between films, mostly because it's nice to see Abe not disappear for all of act three.

The attention to personal relationships makes these movies rewarding. Sure, the numerous, effects-heavy action scenes are well-done, but they wouldn't be half as exciting if we didn't care about the stakes or the people involved. As it stands, I had a hard time buying two of the key fights because of the aforementioned Brawl Bubble--which is a puzzling pocket of protection that's formed around important characters during scenes where they should clearly be getting killed, or at least beaten senseless. In the tooth fairy scene, for example, swarms of nasty, razor-mouthed little demons devour regular BPRD agents with ease, but only a few attack Liz, Abe, and Hellboy; were del Toro more honest in writing this scene, he would have placed his center-stage heroes in the same danger as his proverbial Red Shirts (the same problem pops up again in the climax, where a reanimated golden army pounds the shit out of everything in their general vicinity--except for Liz, Abe, and Krauss, who literally stand at ground zero, looking on in amazement).

Also, I know that these movies are geared towards comic-book fans, but is a little variety too much to ask for in a final battle? Nuada is a master martial artist, who flips, stabs, and leaps with the ease of Darth Maul and the look of an albino cosplayer. He shows off so much throughout the film that by the time he squares off against Hellboy in the center of the Earth, I found myself daydreaming when I should have been caught up in this high-stakes fight to the death.

Despite that momentary lapse into boredom, I have to give del Toro props for a very satisfying resolution to his big villain problem: Nuada and Nuala are psychically and physically linked, meaning that if Hellboy kills the elf prince, he also murders Abe's new girlfriend. I won't spoil what happens, except to say that the auteur opts for poetry where others might have gone for bombast.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is a little more than more of the same--making it essential viewing for anyone who hasn't seen Part One. That is to say that you can get the gist of the story and all the best attributes of Mike Mignola's comic-book universe by jumping right into the sequel. I would love to see third installment, so long as the story takes on as fantastic a life as the visuals.

Maybe it was the Pan's Labyrinth thing, or maybe I had a bug up my butt when I first saw this movie. Whatever the case, Golden Army is the perfect example of film criticism being a fun but terribly imperfect profession. Today's classic is often tomorrow's guilty pleasure, just as a dull waste of two hours in 2008 can become an emotionally satisfying thrill in 2011. There are few uncontestable classics out there--the same goes for bombs--and the hardest thing in this business is admitting to possibly making a mistake.

So, if you run into me on the street and I start ragging on one of your favorite films, please feel free to put me in my place by asking, "When's the last time you saw it?"

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Reader Comments (1)

To your last line. WILL DO! As I always do : )

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBryan H.

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