Guillermo Del Toro has become the new master of dark fantasy -- first with the quirky clockpunk "Hellboy," then with the Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth." Not to mention forthcoming travels to Middle-Earth.
So you know he has the skills to pit Mike Mignola's scarlet anti-hero against an army of fairies and elves, and not make it silly. Instead, it's a spectacular dark fantasy full of humor, action, quirky appeal, romance, and some truly astounding special effects. But what really shoves this movie over the top is Del Toro's brilliant direction, and the stunning performance by Ron Perlman.
Decades ago, Professor Broom (William Hurt) told a small Hellboy a yuletide bedtime story about the Elf King Balor and his unstoppable Golden Army, and how the crown that controls the Army was split into thirds and divided among fairies and humans.
Well, you can't really expect that kind of power to never be revived.
Cut to current day. Hellboy (Perlman), Liz (Selma Blair) and Abe (Doug Jones) investigate a strange supernatural attack on an auction house, where the archeological curiosity known as the Crown of Bethmoora was being sold -- only to be attacked by savage tooth fairies. Turns out the crown was stolen by Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), a resentful young elf who is determined to take the world back from humanity -- using, of course, the Golden Army.
And while Hellboy chafes against strict new commander Johann Krauss (a suit filled with ectoplasm), Abe encounters Nuada's sister, Princess Nuala -- who also happens to have the last third of the crown. But Nuada will not allow anyone to oppose him as he searches for the Golden Army's location, and Hellboy and his friends must venture into a strange, ancient kingdom to stop him from destroying all of humanity.
The worst you can say about "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" is that it retreads the idea of a demonic outsider with a dark destiny, and his continuing romantic woes. Hellboy realizes anew that he'll never fit into the world of humans, because he's big and red and has horns and a tail. Okay, we got it. Next big psychological issue!
Fortunately those flaws are relatively minor ones. Del Toro is able to spin up a straightforward fantasy story, but then he conjures up some truly glorious trappings -- a fey civilization running parallel to ours. And he populates it with truly bizarre creatures (the eye-winged Angel of Death), clockpunk robots, and trippy underground goblin markets. And when this ancient civilization lashes out, Del Toro does not pull punches -- giant thrashing tentacle-vines and a one-on-one duel between Hellboy and Nuada are among the highlights. And the Golden Army itself is all gears and fire -- pretty amazing.
But Del Toro doesn't neglect the script -- lots of solid snappy dialogue and some poignantly romantic moments, including some startling actions from dear ol' Abe. And he also adds little moments to this epic story that remind us that these are supposed to be people -- such as Hellboy's bickering with his new ectoplasmic boss, or Abe and Hellboy getting drunk and having a little Manilow singalong together. It's just so cute.
But what really sets this movie apart is the "children of the Earth." No flitting Victorian sprites -- these are creatures that are weird, grotesque, dangerous and immensely powerful, from nasty little tooth fairies up to creatures with buildings for heads and plant gods. There's an alien, bizarre aesthetic to these creatures that feels wholly real, as if Neil Gaiman casually dropped a few sketches onto the drawing board.
But as amazing as the visuals are, Del Toro never neglects the characters. Perlman is perfect for the role of "big Red" -- he's gruff, sarcastic, moody, but also endearing and self-deprecatingly likable. There are more hints of his potentially dark future and the temptations he faces, but Big Red's good heart is still very much in the forefront.
Blair gives a more lively performance here as a spunkier Liz, who also has some surprising developments in store. Jones is pitch-perfect as the fish-man, who experiences the first pangs of young love for Nuala, and Goss gives a chilling, whispery performance as a rebel prince who is willing to do whatever it takes -- even kill members of his family -- if it helps him restore the fey kingdom.
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army" is a wild, darkly ornate ride through the world of half-forgotten gods and fey. While it has a few flaws, those are far outweighed by the brilliant of Del Toro's vision.