Hell yes: Del Toro’s Golden Army launches surprise attack on box office

by Glen Baity

A baby demon from hell, recovered by the US military in World War II, grows up to fight crime Ghostbusters-style.

Yep, Hellboy is almost too weird to even be a comic book. So if you’re maxed out on superhero movies (and what a shame, only days ahead of The Dark Knight’s arrival), rest easy – like its source material, Hellboy II is much more than a cape-and-cowl caper. If you can get past the exceedingly odd premise, you’ll find a killer adventure right of out of a pulp serial. It’s perfect for the time of year.

You don’t need much familiarity with the character, or his first screen outing from 2004, to enjoy the second, subtitled The Golden Army. A stand-alone story, it follows Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his friends with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense in their effort to keep a bitter prince (Luke Goss) from resurrecting an indestructible mechanical army and using it to wipe out humanity. Along the way, they’ll contend with relationship difficulties between Hellboy and his girlfriend, Liz (Selma Blair); a new love interest for egghead fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones); and the introduction of a brilliantly-conceived, entirely gaseous team leader voiced by “Family Guy” Seth McFarlane.

It all comes from the unusually fertile mind of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, whose influence on this production should be apparent to anyone familiar with the series of comics and graphic novels. Mignola is one of those artists whose style is instantly recognizable: You’ll know him equally for his beautiful drawings, his knowledge of arcane myth and his wry sense of humor. All are well represented in director Guillermo Del Toro’s film (Mignola helped conceive the story and has a co-producer credit), which within seconds whisks the viewer away to a cooler world.

That world is equal parts steampunk, Raymond Chandler and regional folklore. It’s a gumbo from a pair of mad chefs, and it’s great fun to watch, complimented by game performances from a top-notch cast. I don’t know if Hellboy is the kind of role one is “born” to play, but Perlman’s casting remains one of the most inspired things about this franchise. His grumbling wit shines through the layers of prosthetics, and he’s one of many who make these bizarre characters seem like your next-door neighbors. Also scoring big, once again, is Doug Jones, who lends his gift for expressive movement to Sapien and two other characters. And no discussion of the film’s cast would be complete without a nod to the always-hilarious Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning, who has the unenviable task of reigning in Hellboy’s brute-force investigation style.

My only complaint about the film is its villain, Prince Nuada, who is just a bit too mopey for my tastes, and whose scorched-earth motivations feel tossed-off and simplistic. Despite that, he’s a formidable physical opponent for our big red galoot of a hero, and the action scenes between the two are, like most everything else here, great fun.

Visually, the film is marvelous. Del Toro gave viewers glimpses of the fantastic in his last film, the excellent Pan’s Labyrinth, which set its most memorable scenes in the main character’s vivid dream world. He lets loose here with some of the most imaginative creations this side of Jim Henson’s workshop. An extended vignette in a place called the Troll Market boasts more unique character types than the Mos Eisley cantina. It’s followed by an epic, breathtaking battle with a woodland colossus that will keep your eyes glued to the screen.

These are astonishing sequences, and they underscore the fact that Hellboy’s influences are almost too many to count. Del Toro, however, is a gifted enough director not to let his nimble film get bogged down by any one of them. He keeps the tone light and the fun front and center, making The Golden Army the rare sequel that bests the original.

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