There are movies from your childhood that will always stand high on the pedestal of wonder, filtered through the lens of nostalgia, to which newer ones can never compare. For me, one of those was The Dark Crystal by Jim Henson’s crew; a world entirely without humans that felt incredibly real. A place you might like to visit, but only if you had a ticket home. Another was Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, which posited that behind the walls and closet doors of our flimsy world were a maze of wormholes that could take you anywhere in time, or even to realms of fantasy. And if I were 11 again, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army would be on that list.
The movie isn’t perfect; it begins at its low point, where we see a goofy-looking young Hellboy with his surrogate father, Professor Broom (John Hurt, the go-to man for grizzled elderly) from the previous movie, being told a bedtime story- this is where we learn the legend of the ancient war between humans and fairytale-kind, and how we were defeated by the Golden Army. They got the forests, and we got the cities, but as you know, we’ve become quite greedy for land in the last thousand years… del Toro tells the story briefly with wooden little automatons, which quickly makes you forget the campiness of young Hellboy and his buck teeth.
From there the movie is an adventure through del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s world, where rebel elf-price Nuada attacks an auction house with a huge boar-like henchman and a swarm of hungry “tooth fairies.” Like in the original Hellboy, it doesn’t pay to be a human agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, the folks who “bump back” at things that go bump in the night. They get visits from the tooth fairy, and it’s not to leave a quarter under their pillows.
Hellboy’s girlfriend Liz Sherman the firegirl (Selma Blair) and boss Jeffrey Tambor are having trouble with “Big Red.” Only Abe the fish-man seems to get along with him. So the Feds send in Johann Krauss (voiced perfectly by Seth McFarlane of Family Guy fame), a wisp of ectoplasmic smoke in a suit, to reign him in. We learn little about Krauss, but like Tambor in the first film, clashes with Hellboy’s need for recognition for his heroic deeds and his brash style, but they find a mutual respect by the end. As in the first one, we get romantic subplots but they never slow the film down or sidetrack the plot. There’s a hilarious duet of Barry Manilow by two men in the doghouse in the middle that hits the perfect tone for the characters. Like the X-Men, Abe, Liz and Hellboy just want to fit in; unlike X-Men, it’s much less dramatic here, and we aren’t force-fed eye-rolling allusions to civil rights issues. The characters are allowed to blossom without plot-driven acts of stupidity getting in their way.
Krauss helps them find the Troll Market, which just happens to be underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. This is the major set piece of the film, and lives up to the hype that other critics, like Ebert, have gushed forth. In every little cranny of the scene is something you’d like to zoom in on, and I imagine the DVD will be stunning. The Hellboy 3-disc Director’s Cut box set was full of amazing extras, and this movie might fill 3 Blu-Ray discs to show us all the creature designs. The scene resembles the bazaars of old 30’s pictures as they ask around for clurs, some sneaking, some chatting, and Hellboy smacking goons around. I’m sure there’s computer-generated effects here, but everything looked so real that you can’t tell where costumes end and computers begin.
Later on there’s a fight with a huge forest god in lower Manhattan that must be CG, but it never looks like it. We’ve seen Cloverfield trash the city, but del Toro takes a different tack, making Hellboy dash through stalled traffic with a baby in one hand and a big gun in the other, dodging tossed cars and debris as he fights the enraged creature. It’s like the end scene of The Untouchables played for laughs, and it works.
Action scenes aside, Hellboy 2‘s great triumph is that when it shows us hidden underworlds beneath Manhattan and Ireland, I believed in it. It’s fantastic without being ridiculous; we know there are mole people and 175 feet of tunnels in layers down there hiding sewers and abandoned subway stations, who’s to say there’s not a troll market? And he makes great use of Ireland’s rocky knolls for a wonderful scene at the Giant’s Causeway. When you walk the broad expanses of the Irish countryside, you do feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of giants, and they make great use of it here. The final showdown with the eponymous golden army is a return to del Toro’s love of clockworks like the device in Cronos; I remember seeing that movie at the Angelika in New York in 1993 and being wowed by it. It was a fresh take on the vampire story, where an alchemist’s clockwork device, meant to give eternal life, does so at a price. It was stylish, clever, funny… and of course had Ron Perlman as the sympathetic thug sent to steal the device. Perlman and del Toro have come a long way- that same sense of humor, love of the dark fantastic, and ability to tell tales and craft characters together which inspire the imagination, have finally culminated in an action-fantasy masterpiece that will hopefully spawn another sequel. There’s nothing quite like Hellboy out there. He’s a comic book hero, but is as far away from the superman who lead secret lives in tights as you can get.