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Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): ***½

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

After I saw this film I went around telling everybody that they simply had to go see it. Usually the person to whom I was speaking would hem and haw a little bit. "Well, I never saw the first one."

"Don't worry," I'd reply, "you're not missing much; it wasn't all that good. But Hellboy II is great."

And so it is. What a great movie. And indeed you don't have to have seen the first one at all. Hellboy's backstory is quickly explained by some text on the screen so that you know what's what. Then we're introduced to the background we'll need to know for the plot of this movie with a fantastic animated sequence. Then the movie itself begins, and it's a wham-bang, zip-pappy-pow movie with a bunch of honestly-hilarious stuff in it.

The central plot of the movie is about how the last Prince of the Elves wants to resurrect the Golden Army, an indestructible fighting force, and unleash them on the human world. The Princess would rather that didn't happen; the Prince needs her cooperation because she has a piece of the magic crown that controls the army. Hellboy and his team would also rather the Golden Army stayed asleep, and so try to protect the Princess from her brother.

The main character conflict of the movie deals with Hellboy, who despite being about 70 years old (he ages at 1/2 speed) is still basically a big, selfish kid. He and pyrokinetic Liz, his love interest from the first movie, are living together but it isn't going very well. He doesn't know how to step up, be a man, take responsiblity for himself, and treat her right. And she isn't at all sure that she's okay with that. Plus there are a couple of other things on her mind.

Meanwhile, Hellboy's fishlike colleague Abe has fallen for the Princess, but (even though he's about 150 years old and doesn't seem to age at all) this has never happened to him before and he has no idea how to deal with it at all except be kinda tragically puppy-ish. These two character stories play out parallel to each other and manage to work in such a way that Hellboy and Abe end up singing a duet of "Can't Smile Without You" and it not only feels organic to the story but is unbelievably funny.

The central core of the movie, though, is a meditation on why good people do good things. For years and years Hellboy and his crew have been secretly saving humanity's collective neck. And Hellboy gets fed up with not being able to take credit for it. He wants the limelight. He wants to be thanked. So early in the film he enginners his own "outing" to the public in a rather spectacular way.

Of course, things don't work out the way he wanted. He isn't adored by the public. He looks like a gigantic red demon. He's too different. His whole team is. They're seen as freaks. Like the X-Men, they're now protecting a world that hates and fears them. The Prince siezes on this in an exchange with Hellboy: why should Hellboy be helping them? And that internal conflict is what tears at Hellboy in this movie. If you're going to do good, for whom are you doing it? And why?

The plot and theme are great, sure, but beyond that this movie is filled wall-to-wall with imaginative weirdness. There are little monstrous tooth fairies (so-called because they like to eat the calcium in teeth and bones); a troll that has an extendable ball and chain for a hand; a half-goblin who has no legs and wheels himself around on a cart; elves that turn into brittle statues when they die; a German ghost who is contained in a special suit and who can possess unliving things (and in one hilarious scene gets into a fight with Hellboy while possessing an entire row of lockers); a 60-foot plant elemental whose blood causes anything it touches to immediately sprout grass and flowers; and a . And then of course there's the Golden Army itself, 70 times 70 mechanical 20-foot warriors who burn with some sort of inner fire that leaks between their joints in a most beautiful way.

My 2nd favorite film visually of 2008 (after The Fall), every scene in the movie is ricocheting with atmosphere, imagination, and tons of interesting stuff to look at. There's a scene in a troll marketplace that makes stuff from the Star Wars movies look like they were made with 25 cents and some cheap halloween masks. Impressively, the vast majority of the creatures were done with costumes and animatronics instead of CGI. And it helps ground the reality of the film immensely.

Unlike the first film, Hellboy II holds itself together really well and builds steadily towards a satisfying and sadly inevitable climax. And Guillermo del Toro leaves several tantalizing strings dangling just enough for there to be a natural Hellboy III, which is already in the planning stages.

Plus I'll say it again: Hellboy is the role that Ron Pearlman was born to play.


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