2004's "Hellboy" was a sprawling, mysterious, comical, slimy, and idiosyncratic monster movie. "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" has all of those qualities and one more: restraint. Well, at least a newfound sense of limitation; this sequel overdoses in a big way on fantasy tangents, yet, unlike the earlier picture, it clicks together with a greater, more direct geek panache.
On orders to keep his crimson mug out of the public eye, facing the domestic wrath of pyro-ready girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and trying to console amphibious friend Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, in both body and voice this time out) as he explores love for the first time, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has a full dance card of problems. When ancient royalty Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) rises up to seize control of a magical crown that controls the all-powerful robotic Golden Army, it's up to Hellboy and the BPRD to stop him. However, as the human-friendly demon gets closer to killing Nuada, he's forced to reconsider his place in the world, and where his allegiance truly lies.
It goes without saying these days that writer/director Guillermo del Toro has one of the most powerfully erect imaginations in the entertainment business. His insatiable desire for all things supernatural is a stunning obsession, leading to a career slanted toward the continual evocation of the unreal. The effective "Blade II" aside, "Hellboy" was truly del Toro playing in a conventional Hollywood sandbox, and it seemed to wear him down. For a film sporadically delightful and containing unforgettable characterization, "Hellboy" felt hopelessly immobile, losing itself entirely to the excesses of genre requirements in the final reel, stealing the small handfuls of glee almost accidently left behind.
It's interesting to note that "Golden Army" is del Toro's first film since his 2006 triumph "Pan's Labyrinth," and a familiar fantastical blood still courses through his veins. The new Hellboy adventure plays as though it was made by a man emboldened by his recent directorial choices, taking a beloved franchise and embracing it with every bit of love and newfound power he could muster. "Golden Army" is an uninhibited snapshot of del Toro's gummy ambitions, now allowed a proper big-ticket budget to imagine worlds beyond our own, creatures of every possible angle and temperament, and a threat worth summoning building-smashing bravery to fend off.
However, as boundless as del Toro's gusto is, he's still short a certain ability to rein all of his ideas in and sharpen his storytelling skills to a fine, effective point.
"Golden Army" loves its monsters: there are creatures stomping over nearly every frame of the film, filling this expanded world with a community of hostile outcasts to find a more suitable context for our hornless hero. The make-up and CG work in the film are outstanding, but it comes at a crushing price: it distracts del Toro. With a veritable "Muppet Show" of goblins and assorted blobs running around, the director becomes enamored with every Forrest Ackerman detour, often applying brakes to the film to monitor the horror, which effectively loosens the already threadbare tension of the film (the Nuada subplot is a dud). There's little doubt del Toro puts on one helluva show, but he's a kid in a candy store in every release, absent a specific discipline that could merge wondrous beastly expressions with a rigid pacing and exhaustive dramatics.
Could you imagine "A New Hope" set entirely inside the Mos Eisely cantina? "Golden Army" comes dangerously close to that unpleasant aesthetic too many times.
Once del Toro is pried away from his fiendish vices, "Golden Army" reveals itself to be a wonderfully touching character odyssey for Hellboy, as he struggles with his place among the humans, not to mention his difficulty expressing love for Liz. Perlman is just so positively perfect in this role that every scene with Hellboy that doesn't involve things going kablooey is a delight, furthering the soul-searching needed to temper the outrageousness of his exterior. The director even manages to sneak in magnificent, beer-fueled bonding time between Hellboy and Abe, refreshing the friendship between "Red" and "Blue," while also giving the fish-man a little more to do with a bizarre, yet quite fruitful romantic subplot. There's also a new boss for the BPRD in Johann Kraus, a steampunk-inspired creation who looks like a robot and speaks with a goofy "Hogan's Heroes" German accent (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), who brings fresh energy into the film. An energy that takes a good half of the movie to compute, but eventually falls into line with del Toro's exaggerated comedic beats.
Befitting a wildly colored and ornately designed film, the anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio) presentation safeguards del Toro's visual magic extremely well. Working out the tricky golden hues and deep blacks suitably, the transfer maintains an impressive level of detail while maneuvering around an abundance of intricate screen tones.
Using the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix to the fullest degree, the "Hellboy II" DVD gives the home audio system a thrilling Richard Simmons-style workout, using immense surround movements for the action sequences that pull the listener into the action with tremendous force, and a nice balance of dialogue and atmospherics for the rest of the picture. Considering the menagerie of monsters, robots, and all-purpose otherworldly beings stomping around, it's a bit of a miracle anything can be heard clearly. This mix is a lot of fun. Spanish, French, and DVS audio options are also available.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
Listed as a "3-Disc Special Edition," the actual DVD event takes up two discs. The third is simply the infamous "Digital Copy." Nonsense, I know, but I don't make the rules. I just complain about them.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Guillermo del Toro kicks off the "Hellboy II" DVD supplementary experience, with the chatty filmmaker promising to "destroy your evening" watching the film with his "horrible voice." Well, that's certainly one way to promise big fun. The commentary is expectedly remarkable, with del Toro ready to unleash a flood of production info for every scene he can possibly comment on. You don't see this level of effort every day.
- The young Hellboy seen during the prologue is actually played by a girl.
- Unable to return to Budapest for filming, the exterior of the BPRD is a CG creation.
- Look fast for a few "Pan's Labyrinth" creature cameos.
- The director provided all the monster voices in the film.
- The Golden Army is influenced by the design of a Japanese toy del Toro purchased in the late 1980s.
- Cryptically, del Toro points out a few clues to explore in a future sequel. However, the director doesn't seem convinced he will be allowed another chance to explore the "Hellboy" world due to middling box office returns and awful release dates.
A second commentary is provided by actors Jeffrey Tambor, Selma Blair, and Luke Goss. Yeah, no Ron Perlman! I'm not sure why either. The discussion starts off with a sharing of middle names and doesn't get any better over the course of two painfully long hours. Blair is a serious motormouth, and the actors sound like they get along wonderfully, but...really, no Perlman? What a crime. Minutes into the commentary Blair encourages the listener to switch over to del Toro's track. Take her advice.
"Set Visits" (17:10) is a collection of BTS footage, cut down to tasty little promotional bits. The fly-on-the-wall atmosphere is intoxicating, and really should be elongated as much as possible. Still, the small slices here are terrific, giving the viewer a clear idea of life on the "Hellboy II" set.
"Troll Market Tour" (12:22) follows docent Guillermo del Toro as he strolls around the gargantuan sets of the film, ticking off bits of trivia as he goes along. Who better to lead the tour than the creator himself? I guarantee the viewer will come away knowing everything there is to know about the Troll Market location.
"Zinco Epilogue" (5:15) is an animated comic book meant to flesh out the story further.
"Deleted Scenes" (5:03) were cut for pacing purposes, comprised of tiny character moments that just couldn't fit into the flow of the film. A few of the shots remain unfinished, leaving behind an opportunity to hear Johann Kraus's temp voice and witness some green-screen acting. They can be viewed with or without commentary from del Toro.
"Hellboy: In Service of the Demon" (154:41) is the real meat and potatoes of this DVD, covering the production process from start to semi-finish (post isn't included). The documentary gives the average "Hellboy" fan a buffet of information to gorge on, following del Toro as he undertakes an outrageously complicated film with a lower-end blockbuster budget. The best material is located in the design section of the doc, watching del Toro guide his team of animators and creature creators to the perfect shade of oddity. Interviews with cast and crew help widen the experience, revealing the substantial effort it took to bring "Hellboy II" to life. It's an exhaustive, quite educational documentary, and if there's anything you need to know about this movie, it's right here just waiting to be devoured.
"Production Workshop" (3:13) is a storyboard comparison interface for the opening animated sequence of the film, detailing the birth of the Golden Army. It can be viewed with or without an video intro from del Toro.
"Pre-Production Vault" peeks into the director's own notebook to scrutinize the earliest dreams of the "Hellboy II" world, topped off with commentary from del Toro. A second set of galleries showcase Creature Design, Mike Mignola Creator Gallery, Production Design, and Production Stills.
"Marketing Campaign" offers no Theatrical Trailers, but takes a look at discarded poster and print designs.
And finally, a DVD-Rom version of the screenplay is available to peruse.
I enjoyed "Golden Army" much more than the original "Hellboy," but the concept still needs a fixation outside of ghouls and goblins. The moments that light up this sequel are the personal asides, infusing resplendent warmth that del Toro could manipulate even further for maximum investment. Surely "Golden Army" fulfills every sci-fi fantasy around, but watching Hellboy find his purpose, contemplate his newly complicated future, or recall his past (a lovely prologue shows the character a curious boy in a veritable Jean Shepherd Christmas card) is where the real awe of the premise is found, not by dancing the "Monster Mash" until your eyes bleed.