by Tony Dayoub
Mexican Guillermo Del Toro has had a curious bifurcated career thus far. While the average viewer would claim that he is simply a horror/fantasy director, that slash has been a much wider one than one would think. In this country, he's been known for his fun horror flicks, Mimic, Blade II, and Hellboy, which are terrific B-movies. On the other hand, his Spanish language films, while rooted in horror, are more in the fantasy vein. Their tragic stories, usually revolving around a child, carry no small amount of poignancy. And while Cronos and The Devil's Backbone (aka El Espinazo del Diablo) flew under the mainstream radar, Pan's Labyrinth (aka El Laberinto del Fauno) finally brought him the attention he's been due. Lucky for the big, red Anung un Rama, Hellboy to you, because if not it's doubtful that Hellboy II: The Golden Army would have gotten made. And we get a much more assured filmmaker in this one, as the two divergent career paths he's forged finally converge in this film, on the way to his next big production, The Hobbit, a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Like in his earlier American films, The Golden Army enjoys poking fun, and having fun with our hero and the motley crew of compatriots he fights evil with at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development, or B.P.R.D. Beginning with a flashback to 1955, where a young Hellboy is eagerly awaiting Santa with his adopted dad Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt in a cameo reprise from the first film), we get a look at the humorous dichotomy that our hero personifies. At once cute and fearsome, young Hellboy holds the same attraction that Blade held in Del Toro's earlier film. Blade was the most badass in a group of badass vampires, but also the most vulnerable, and human. The grown-up Hellboy (Ron Perlman), fearful of his destined role in vanquishing mankind, holds on to any vestige of humanity he can, keeping pet kittens, smoking Cuban cigars, drinking Tecate, a Mexican beer (I'm guessing this is a Del Toro touch).
He's now shacking up with pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who discovers she's pregnant early on in this film. Sherman, unsure of their future, keeps it secret while the B.P.R.D. gets roped into its latest adventure. They must stop Elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) from warring on the humans to reclaim Elfdom's place in the world. Amphibian psychic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), meanwhile, falls in love with Nuada's twin, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton). And the whole crew is shaken up by the assignment of a new leader, the ectoplasmic spirit, Johann Kraus (voiced by Family Guy's Seth McFarlane), who Hellboy objects to principally because of his German nationality, an allusion to his time fighting Nazis in Mike Mignola's comics.
The movie benefits from some of the trappings of Del Toro's Spanish language fantasy films. The Angel of Death that the B.P.R.D. crew encounters is very reminiscent of his Pan's Labyrinth creatures. And the slow fade into obscurity of Nuada's kind is a poignant plot point that gives the movie more emotional weight than the first Hellboy's more Lovecraftian storyline. Here we are as fascinated by the Elf Prince's stubborn refusal to let his fairy-tale world disappear as we are by the elegant mythic world Labyrinth's Ofelia loses herself in when she is in distress. In fact the two world's bear a strong resemblance to each other, and nowhere is this more evident than upon the B.P.R.D.'s visit to the Troll Market, populated by its odd fairy-tale menagerie.
The single most representative moment in which Del Toro's poignant sensibilities and his appreciation for B-movie humor converges in a film full of such small moments is in a scene with Hellboy and Abe. Hellboy gets drunk after Liz asks for some space and he overhears a Barry Manilow song emanating from a room down the hall at home base. He discovers a miserable Abe lamenting his unrequited love The two otherworldly creatures share a Tecate as they both join Manilow on a chorus of "Can't Smile Without You" in a scene that's as touching as it is amusing.
So thanks to Pan's Labyrinth's success, Del Toro gained enough cachet to be able to rescue this Hellboy sequel from the dust bin. Universal bought the rights from Sony, as they are reportedly seeking to get into business with more international directors. And with Del Toro's anticipated triumph as Peter Jackson's handpicked successor in The Lord of the Rings saga, Universal takes advantage of Sony's shortsightedness. Dark Horse Entertainment, Hellboy's comic book distributor has now hung its film production shingle at Universal for the next three years. And Del Toro successfully finally merges pathos and humor in this film, great practice for the similar effect he'll have to achieve in The Hobbit. Consider this dry run a triumph in that respect.