The original Hellboy released in 2004 was a moderate success commerically, but further established Guillermo Del Toro as a master story-teller and film-maker. His first foray into Hollywood was the sequel to the hugely successful film Blade. Blade II showed the world what this talented visionary had to offer when given a decent budget and the results were promising, although Del Toro had still yet to find his sylistic voice in English-language film making. His spanish language films had to this point been beautifully shot and full of unusual creatures which would later become what he was most recognised for, but it was Hellboy II: The Golden Army that put him on a path of creativity that would lead to the masterpiece that is Pan’s Labyrinth. Off of a budget of $85m, Hellboy II took $160m at the box office.
Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is told a story by his adoptive father, Trevor Broom (John Hurt) about a hidden, indestructible golden army, created by goblins for use by the elves in the war against humanity. The prince of the elves, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) decides that his father was a fool and sets about trying to piece together the broken fragments of the crown that will give him control of the army and finally destroy the human race. His sister, flees with the final fragment and meets Hellboy’s friend Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and forms a bond with him that means that he, Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) must protect her and stop the mad prince from raising the golden army.
What Hellboy II achieves that it’s predecessor struggled with was a real sense of place. While Del Toro‘s attention to detail is as finely tuned as always, it’s the life that he breathes into even the most fleeting characters, highlighted perfectly in the rather sad final death-rattle of the tooth fairy. He perfectly places the world of monsters, pixies, elves and goblins within the real world United States and it never once feels too far-fetched. There are allusions to the original Star Wars, with a visit to the Troll Market that could easily be located in Mos Eisley and every creature, while looking unusual, has Del Toro‘s style all over it. You can see the beginnings of some of the ideas that he would later transplant into Pan’s Labyrinth. In many ways, he is most similar to Tim Burton is his imagination, but with all the gothic, darkness replaced with bright, colourful wonder.
At the heart of Hellboy II, is the eponymous hero Hellboy himself, played to gruff, wise-cracking perfection by Ron Perlman. His ongoing struggle to be accepted by ‘normal’ people forms the emotional core of the film and sits perfectly at odds with his love for Liz. Alongside him Jones‘ Sapien is cool, calm and intelligently calculating, but with moments of depth displayed with his burgeoning relationship with the princess. Even the antagonist gets some character development and depth, as Luke Goss‘ Prince is almost Shakespearean in his melancholy and rage as he desperately tries to bring respect and honour back to world more concerned with greed.
The plot moves along at such a breakneck speed that there almost isn’t time to see all the minute details and loving care that has clearly gone into every frame. The action scenes are exhilerating, exciting and expertly handled and the story, while simple, is very effective at tying all the characters together. It perhaps lacks the epic feel of the very best comic book films, but a combination of superb cast, great action and expert direction make Hellboy II: The Golden Army not only a better film than the original, but one of the better examples of the genre.