Curmudgeonly, cantankerous, cigar-chomping Hellboy is a cross between a ’40s noir detective and a burning fireplace, but he’s also cool enough to make “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” the hipster’s hit of the summer. Yes, Catholic imagery has always run rampant through helmer Guillermo del Toro’s movies, including “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which he made in between the two “Hellboy” entries, but he’s really an evangelist of fanboy excess: Given the right push by Universal, he’ll be making fantasy-horror acolytes out of the heretofore unconverted.
In a previous life, del Toro might have been a maker of clocks — clocks inhabited by gargoyles instead of cuckoos, and which exploded on the hour. But there’s a precision to the visual ornateness of “Hellboy II” that exceeds even that of its predecessor. It’s certainly a more deliberately (and successfully) funny movie, thanks largely to the drily ironic Hellboy — Ron Perlman, who returns with the rest of the cast, and without whom an onscreen Hellboy would have been almost unthinkable.
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Based on the comicbooks by del Toro’s co-scripter, Mike Mignola, the pic finds Hellboy about to become Hell Man — his incendiary girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) is pregnant, although she doesn’t tell him till much later. But since we learn this at the beginning of the film, it shades everything that follows — a elaborate sequence early on, in which Hellboy battles a towering green forest deity on the streets of New York while balancing a baby in his arms, gives us an indication of just what a caring, paternal figure the guy can be, despite the fact that he looks like he’s shrink-wrapped in red Naugahyde and has the temperament of a wolverine.
But the reason the movie plays so well has nothing to do with the leading man’s paternal instincts; rather, it’s rooted in del Toro’s rococo instincts for the stylishly creepy and crawlingly macabre, his clockmaker’s preoccupation with detail, and a flair for combining state-of-the-art technology with his taste for the antique, the gothic, the Catholic. Not to disparage the f/x guys, but what’s onscreen in “Hellboy II” is all about the seismic eruptions in del Toro’s head. Comparing his work to most fantasy cinema is like comparing cave drawings to the Cathedral of Cologne.
Still, “Hellboy II’s” widespread popularity will be about the humor, which begins in a flashback to Christmas 1955, when the young Hellboy — the progeny of a collaboration between the Nazis and Satan — is awaiting Santa Claus. His father figure, Professor Broom (John Hurt), reads him a story, about an ancient people who created a Golden Army that was so invincible and ruthless it had to be retired; a pact made with the human race; and a crown divided — two parts to the ancients, one to the humans, with the army in cold storage until the crown was reassembled.
This is a bedtime story? On Christmas Eve? The tale does serve as a preamble to what will follow some time later (50 years? These so-called people age well). Hellboy is working for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense alongside Liz and the Piscean Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), and under the supervision of the unctuous Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) who urges Hellboy to keep his work quiet. Undercover. Clandestine. Be discreet! Naturally, the first big fight scene ends up with Hellboy crashing out of a burning building and onto a police car.
The instigator of all this mayhem is the otherworldly, martial-artsy Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who wants his people to regain their rightful place in the order of things; his twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), knowing her bro is bonkers, sides with the humans and hides the key part of the crown. The results include chases, battles and a lot of quick-cooking mythology.
And, of course, creatures. Nuada is assisted by what seems to be a tusked gorilla with porcupine spindles on his back and an iron fist that turns into a medieval mace; the small, evil fairy-cockroaches that Nuada unleashes upon an unsuspecting crowd at an auction house (where the crown is up for bid) are efficiently carnivorous and natteringly unnerving.
The weak link in all this fun is Nuada himself. Goss embodies all the menace of Keanu Reeves, and his voice is roundly unimposing.
The movie bogs down only when the story leaves the city and heads for Ireland where, inexplicably, the Golden Army dwells. The army’s awakening and combat is easily the least interesting sequence in the film — the most conventionally chaotic and pedestrian. But Hellboy’s encounter with Nuada, atop a giant mechanism that looks like the insides of a cosmic watch, is invigorating. And probably the result of del Toro channeling one of his past lives in Switzerland.