I was delighted when I heard that not only Hellboy was getting a sequel but also that it would be directed by Guillermo del Toro. Although the first film wasn’t a brilliant film, it was a brilliant adaptation of the comic book to film, with spot-on visuals and a perfect Hellboy. Now, with the whisper of ‘franchise’ being bandied around and a lot more money, things can only get better. Things do improve but we don’t get the Hellboy equivalent of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s much lauded masterpiece.
The story picks up shortly after the first film: Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz (Selma Blair) are a couple but with difficulties inherent in a relationship being exacerbated by living in Hellboy’s messy living space in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BRPD) headquarters. BRPD are still ‘bumping back’ the dark things in the night, including the amphibian humanoid Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), and their boss Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) is still struggling to keep them a covert operation despite Hellboy’s posing for photographs while on a mission.
Meanwhile, the elfin Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) forcibly retrieves a piece of the crown of his father’s kingdom from an auction house; he wants to break the truce between human and elves (as detailed in a beautiful pre-credit sequence performed with puppets) worked out by his father, and use the Golden Army, a host of goblin-made mechanical and indestructible soldiers, to return the balance of power to the elves. The remaining piece of the crown that will control the Golden Army is held by his twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who escapes to the human world.
The first taste of action for the BPRD is investigating the aftermath of the auction house attack – Nuada had released ‘tooth fairies’, demonic little creatures who devour humans from the teeth first. This is a wonderfully scary scene, with the horrific little imps a nasty threat, which leads to Hellboy allowing himself to be blown out through the windows and revealing his existence to the waiting television cameras. This leads to the government bringing in somebody to run the BRPD (and keep Hellboy under control): Johann Krauss, a German psychic who exists in a special suit in an ectoplasmic form. He is efficient and a leader, so Hellboy immediately dislikes him. He uses a tooth fairy corpse to lead them to the Troll Market, under Brooklyn Bridge. The scenes here are a visionary delight – the panoply of monsters and set design are magnificent, each one completely different, and you feel that del Toro is having a ball unleashing his creativity. Hellboy accidentally causes the death of Nuada’s comrade, which causes Nuada not to kill Hellboy but to unleash an elemental to kill him (which it obviously doesn’t) and doesn’t bother to attack his sister for the remaining piece of the crown. This is not the definition of a good villain, if you ask me.
Having met Nuala in the Troll Market, they bring her back to BPRD HQ, only for her to reveal the extent of her connection to her brother, who can now find the HQ. Which he does, and fights Hellboy (who is drunk at the time; he and Abe have been get leathered, he over Liz and Abe over Nuala, even doing karaoke to Barry Manilow, which is not something I thought I’d see in a comic book movie), leaving a piece of his spear near his heart and telling them to bring the remaining piece of the crown to him, which Nuala has hidden in the library. This staggering lack of logic really clunks – the story, rooted in folklore and therefore more in keeping with the comic books, doesn’t really flow smoothly. The plot mechanics are blocky and uneven, and the narrative slows down in places. The illogical nature of the antagonist doesn’t help, either, which are just there to allow the wonderful set pieces – del Toro directs action scenes with brio and inventiveness, handling the blend of actors and CGI with real aplomb, and giving the fight scenes between extranormal characters panache, as they move faster and more fluidly than us mere mortals.
The film is hampered by an almost teenage approach to emotional development: Liz describes Hellboy as ‘the best man she has known’ but he acts like an adolescent, drinking beer and eating chocolate bars, laughing at the chat show reactions to his unveiling, even though several fellow agents died in the auction house. He is petulant to authority, beligerent, temper prone and slightly racist towards Krauss. The lovesick Abe is embarrassing and the handling of Liz discovering she is pregnant and her interaction with Hellboy just feels so out of tune with the rest of the film. These things get in the way; I’m not against emotion in comic book movies (even though Hellboy and Liz aren’t a couple in the books, and I think that del Toro has made it a big part of the film for the sake of his ‘this is a mainstream film’ attitude he brings to his non-arthouse movies) but there are better ways of doing it – see Iron Man for Downey Jr and Paltrow interacting in an adult fashion. And don’t get me started on the misstep of Krauss and his silly German accent … The film is visionary – del Toro has a unique vision and a brilliant scope to bring that vision to the screen – but the whole film doesn’t hold together. The action scenes are amazing, the backgrounds are beautiful and the actors are absolutely perfect for their roles, but the emotion doesn’t ring true. And any film that leaves you with a Barry Manilow song in your head is doing something wrong. It is certainly better than the first film, and I wanted to love it so much, but I couldn’t despite all the positives.