Darned to Heck
Now how does this happen? The first Hellboy movie was crazy mad insane, like you couldn’t even figure out what the frak was going on but it didn’t matter, it was that wildly entertaining in its all-out geek-out nuttiness. And now Hellboy II: The Golden Army is just kinda there, like it has accepted its insanity and douses itself with a big handful of lithium every six hours and is feeling much better now, honestly, and don’t forget to buy the Hellboy Happy Meal on your way home. I’m still thinking, four years later, about how wacky Hellboy was, and yet I can barely remember II, and I saw that mere days ago. I want to say that II is pure dumb popcorn fun while you’re watching it and instantly forgettable the moment the credits start to roll, but actually, I was forgetting it while I was still in the process of watching it.
That could be the problem: watching II is a process. It feels like it’s been tamed and corralled and commodified. Hellboy was rowdy and feral and dangerous, and already, in only its second outing, the franchise has been herded into the slaughterhouse and ground up into chuck chop and wrapped in sanitary plastic. I rode the Cyclone once at Coney Island, that rickety old roller coaster that bangs you around and doesn’t have any of those wimpy precautionary devices, like seatbacks that come up above your waist: I acquired a mild case of whiplash from the experience — Hellboy was like that. II is like modern roller coasters, with all their safety harnesses and head braces and seat belts — the damn things practically have air bags, and definitely have no even pretend-real sense of danger to them.
Not that II actually bad, per se, it’s just so… ordinary. Here is a movie about a huge red horned devil dude who loves cats and television and junk food — and he’s played by Ron Perlman, who’s all kinds of cool, not for the least reason being that he’s almost 60 years old and he totally pulls off an incredibly physical role like this huge red horned devil dude, and did I mention he’s snarky, too? — and they made him kinda boring. Here is master fantasist filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Mimic), who wrote and directed this and gives us an urban troll market — it’s hidden under the Brooklyn Bridge! — and warrior elves in the subway and it all feels like something that’s about to get slapped on a T-shirt and sold at Target for $19.95. Imagine trying to take what’s astonishing and dream-making and nightmare-inducing about Pan’s Labyrinth and boiling it down into something you could navigate in a video game — you can’t do it. But the Hellboy video game — for PSP and Xbox! — is coming soon.
Del Toro teases us right as the film opens, with a child’s reverie of puppet warfare, a fantasy brought on by tele-visions of Howdy Doody meeting bedtime stories about an ancient war between elves and humans and a long-forgotten truce and a dormant army of golden robots… and the child who dreams this is actually Hellboy as a kid, and you think right there: This is gonna be as outrageous and audacious as that first movie. But all daring is tossed aside when we join Hellboy today, and are treated to a checklist of comic-book-action clichés: the bickering with the girlfriend (Selma Blair: In Good Company, The Sweetest Thing), who’s really hot: no, seriously, she can light herself on fire; the comical despair of the nonsuperpowered boss who can’t control Hellboy (Jeffrey Tambor: Slipstream, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie); the sidekicky sidekickery of Hellboy’s fish-man pal (Doug Jones: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Pan’s Labyrinth), who for some reason halfway through the film abandons the breathing apparatus that lets him walk around in the air yet still keeps walking around in the air without suffocating. They’re battling an evil elf prince (Luke Goss), who wants war with the humans because we paved paradise and put up a parking lot, and if he has to raise the Golden Army to do it, then by all the ancient gods, he will, just try and stop him.
Oh, and that’s another thing that left me feeling unsatisfied. All this stuff about the Golden Army and how unstoppable it would be were it to awakend, combined with all the evil prince’s schtick about how humans must be wiped from the face of the planet? It appears to be promising us a good ol’ rampage of the entire Earth, and instead, we get something disappointingly local and very anticlimactic. How could it be that the truly gross and horrific little tooth fairies from early in the film are actually scarier than the creatures that get their names in the title? That really feels like a cheat.