Rob Perlman as Hellboy
Selma Blair as Liz Sherman
Doug Jones as Abe Sapien
Seth MacFarlane as the voice of Johann Krauss
Luke Goss as Prince Nuada
Anna Walton as Princess Nuala
Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning
It’s a bit of a disappointment unfortunately. A brilliantly created and beautifully looking one to be sure, but one that’s ultimately less than the sum of its parts.
At the end of the first “Hellboy,” the titular character had finally won the girl of his dreams and discovered the secret of his existence on Earth. With all that setup out of the way, director Guillermo del Toro could conceivably go anywhere with the sequel but instead chooses to go mostly in circles. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is still working for the government to protect normal people against supernatural menaces and angsting about his inability to join the world at large.
The menace this time around is a fairytale world full of elves and trolls and fairies, personified by the very, very bland Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who has gotten tired of humans mucking up the Earth and decided he wants it back. It’s familiar territory for Del Toro, who has turned his back on the more mythology based world of the comic book, choosing to recreate the film series in a milieu more to his liking and then drop the characters into it. Del Toro’s particular foibles are in full swing here, which when they work lead to some beautifully entertaining stuff, and land with a dull thud when they don’t. The result is a film that misses as much as it hits and most of the problems can be traced back to Del Toro’s doorstep, who’s directorial vision for the sequel is uneven at best and ill-conceived at worst.
To start with the good, Perlman still makes a great Hellboy. He’s charismatic and funny and imminently watchable whenever he’s on screen, so much so that it almost doesn’t matter that as a character Hellboy doesn’t really go anywhere for the entire movie, ending in pretty much the same place he starts at. There’s some lip service made to the idea, recycled from the first film, that he has more in common with the people he’s fighting than the one’s he’s protecting, but its never really developed and eventually gets dropped altogether. It’s to Perlman’s credit that he gets by so well without it, but how much better would it be if he actually had something to do besides crack wise and beat people up?
Instead, the most character work is given to Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien, who gets far more to do on every level and is completely up to it. With the exception of a few very clumsy romantic scenes, Abe is handled with so much care and finesse by Del Toro it’s easy to forget you’re looking at a man under miles and miles of prosthetics. A lot of that is due to Jones’ strength as a physical performer. Unfortunately he’s nowhere near as good as a vocal performer, and David Hyde Pierce is sorely missed as Abe’s intellectual and innocent voice. Jones does an able enough job, but he’s not in the same league and it shows, er, sounds.
Because “Hellboy II” is a Del Toro film, it’s no surprise that the eccentric characters are the focus, which is fair enough. An audience can identify and empathize with any character providing it’s sufficiently well written, and Del Toro is a plenty good writer. But it’s obvious from the word go only the non-human characters hold his interest, which makes his human characters so vapid and pointless as to wonder why they’re in the film at all. Jeffrey Tambor, who’s Director Manning was previously an unlikeable but well-rounded figure, has been turned into a walking punch line as he’s replaced in all other aspects by the far more idiosyncratic Johann Krauss (voiced surprisingly well by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane), a scientist made of gas who must live in a pressure suit.
But that’s nothing on poor Selma Blair. She always struck me as a strange casting choice the first time around, but her willowy performance fit the dissociated character she was playing so it worked. This time around, Hellboy’s long-suffering pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz has been recast as a strong action heroine and Blair just doesn’t fit the bill. It doesn’t help that she gets stuck with some of the worst, most banal dialogue in the film, but she doesn’t really do it justice either.
The problem is that underneath all the very pretty sturm und drang, Del Toro has written a fairly conservative action film including most of the clichéd baggage that comes along with that. Hellboy, underneath the tail and horns, is your basic renegade cop on the edge, always butting heads with his captain because he follows his gut instead of procedure, always getting the bad guy but causing more trouble than he’s worth in the process. In other words almost every action movie made since “Dirty Harry.” The big idea seems to be to turn the cliché on its head by grafting Del Toro’s fantasy world onto it, creating bizarre and fantastic sequences where the cops agonize over blowing their cover to save an innocent bystander, except in this case the cops are a demon, a fish guy and a walking balloon and the bystander is a kitten getting ready to be eaten by a troll.
And it works. It’s fun and mental and entertaining and all of the film’s best scenes come out of that idea, whether it be the classic captain/insubordinate subordinate locker confrontation or the best friends getting drunk over women problems and singing Barry Manilow songs (actually, you probably wouldn’t get the Barry Manilow bit in other action movies), the slightly cockeyed nature of the situations makes even old material new and fresh again. In every sense of the phrase, you can’t get enough of it.
That’s because Del Toro inevitable switches modes back and forth between the mental version of the clichéd action film, and the completely straight version (usually whenever any of the human characters, especially Liz, are present) and the straight version is beyond dull. The point he tries to make with those scenes, about Hellboy’s place in the world, is labored and the method of making it is tactless and obvious.
“Hellboy II” still has a lot to like about it, which is almost a weakness because the problems wouldn’t be so obvious if the good stuff wasn’t so good. Because it’s a Del Toro film it goes without saying that it is beautiful to look at. Long-time collaborator Guillermo Navarro has turned in probably the most lavish spectacle of the year, and the make-up and visual effects works so well together it’s nearly seamless. But as good as it looks and as fun as most of the action sequences are (despite their tendency to devolve into ‘lots of people standing around watching Hellboy fight’) I can’t help but wish some more effort had been put into other places. There’s a potentially great movie in there, but it’s buried under a merely decent one.
Despite all that, “Hellboy II” is still very entertaining, even if it is simultaneously a little lackluster, and fans of the original are sure to like it. It probably won’t hold up well on repeat viewings though, and one day soon may be as forgotten as its trolls and elves are.