Devil's advocate

Freakish beasts, ferocious action and — a bit too much ambition

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After the critical acolades for Pan's Labyrinth and the box office successes of Blade 2 and the first Hellboy movie, director Guillermo Del Toro has been finally let loose to make whatever his heart desires (not to mention getting tapped to direct The Hobbit). This is both good and bad news. As an unbridled and ferocious cinema fantasist, he's currently unmatched. Once upon a time Terry Gilliam held that title but years of studio neutering have pushed him into the "could have been legendary" pile of discarded film auteurs. But as a scripter and storyteller, the Spanish filmmaker often lacks the craft (or is it attention span?) to weave his ambitious ideas into a compelling narrative.

Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone revealed his dreamy, intimate art-house side, and their quieter tones forced him to deepen both his story and characters. But Del Toro is, ultimately, a geek at heart, committed to flamboyant spectacle and popcorn movie homage. He's obsessed with freakish monsters, splashy baroque set pieces and eye-popping action sequences set against adolescent pinings for love and acceptance.

And Hellboy II: The Golden Army delivers all those things in spades. What it doesn't deliver is a story that gracefully pulls together Del Toro's exhausting barrage of ideas, emotions and visuals.

If you recall from the last film, macho, cigar-chomping, beer-swilling Hellboy (played by the perfectly cast Ron Perlman) hooked up with his pyrokinetic babe Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) after saving the world from assorted demonic nasties.

Well, marriage hasn't been easy for this mismatched pair, and Liz's secret pregnancy has her reconsidering their future together. Into this domestic mess steps exiled Elven Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who has vowed revenge against humanity for driving Earth's supernatural beings into the shadows. He seeks the missing piece to a crown that'll help him awaken an indestructible army of golden clockwork soldiers, allowing him to destroy the human race once and for all. Enter New York's Bureau of Paranormal Research, aka Hellboy and friends. With Liz, his brainy fish-dude comrade Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), bureaucrat Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) and an unwelcome German gasbag (literally) named Johan Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane) at his side, the big red hero battles Nuada's freakish monsters while learning that social acceptance ain't all it's cracked up to be.

From its opening wooden puppet war to Hellboy's duel with a colossal forest god while cradling an infant to the Tim Burton-like "tooth-fairies" that attack an auction house, Del Toro outdoes himself with deliriously freakish creations and hectic show-stopping action sequences. It's as if every whimsical obsession he's had with intricate mechanical inventions, cartoonishly creepy critters and gothic gloom has sprung directly from his subconscious onto the screen. Del Toro's cinematic vocabulary seems to be forged from Spanish Catholic guilt, comic book garishness and endless movie matinees. His seamless creature animations recall Ray Harryhausen's work on the Sinbad movies while evoking images stolen from children's nightmares. In particular, his gorgeously hideous angel of death (and prophetess) is worth the price of admission alone.

Unfortunately, Del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola's screenplay is unable to balance its serious "outsider" themes with its cornball humor, sympathetic (but unconvincing) villain, marital strife, and examination of the line between fantasy and reality. It's simply too much in a film already stuffed to the gills with elaborate design elements and a small country of characters. As a result the sentiments come off as leaden, the jokes are scattershot (a male bonding scene centered around the music of Barry Manilow goes on too long) and the plotting too loose.

Del Toro's mayhem is similarly unfocused. While his set pieces exhilarate with the sheer audacity of their imagination, the action lacks dramatic momentum. It's fanciful and frenzied but never involving, something you watch but never really experience. Even his wonderful Troll's Market, a marvelous crazy quilt of otherworldly beasts, doesn't allow us to discover its surprises properly.

Nevertheless, in a season of far too many superheroes, it's encouraging to see a filmmaker who takes Hollywood's promise to present the wonder of unimagined worlds seriously. Hellboy is determined to cast an entertaining comic book hero in a unique and elaborate mythology while meaningfully elaborating on the human condition. It's not for lack of trying that Del Toro's film falls short. If anything, it's a case of too much ambition.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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