Guillermo del Toro is a cinematic auteur who would be quite happy directing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. You probably couldn’t say the same of Michael Haneke or Jean Luc Goddard. Auteurs are men usually desperate to Say Something, but del Toro seems to be content to say, “I [heart] Games Workshop” (that confirmed bachelors’ emporium of miniature troll figurines and multi-sided dice). He makes movies that are, unashamedly, designed for people who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons back in the 1980s. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a movie that seems ready made to be a board-game.
Hellboy (for those who didn’t see the first movie) is a demon raised to be good. He works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence – a sort of FBI equivalent staffed by and tasked with monsters – run out of an opulent underground fortress in New Jersey. One day (a fairly typical day, if Hellboy’s reactions are any indication) an army of tiny cannibal monsters runs amok in a New York auction house. Hellboy, Abe Sapien (a man who looks like a fish) and Liz Sherman (a woman who looks like Selma Blair) are sent to investigate. It transpires the tiny cannibals were sent by a pissed-off elf prince. And we all know how that story goes…
Firstly and perhaps urgently (for all those who didn’t grow up playing Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s) I should point out that this movie is funny. Not laughing-at funny, but laughing-with funny. A scene where Hellboy and Abe Sapien sing along to Barry Manilow is perhaps the best version of “Can’t Smile Without You” I, personally, have ever heard. The atmosphere of the whole movie is summed up by having these strange but winsome creatures sing easy listening. Hellboy is not, as its title would suggest, a Clive Barker-type dark fantasy. It’s far more akin to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than Hellraiser.
And I enjoyed it. I don’t for one minute say this movie isn’t good fun. I’m just amazed that when Guillermo del Toro makes an 80s-style fantasy movie, it’s “visionary”, and when anyone else does it, critics can scarcely stifle their yawns. Didn’t anyone else feel like they were watching The Never-Ending Story (with guns)? Is it because del Toro also makes genuinely strange and interesting movies that everything he does is praised as if it were The Seventh Seal?
Ron Perlman, as Hellboy, seems to know the movie he’s in. Here’s a man who got his first break in Beauty and the Beast twenty years ago. He knows how to play an adolescent demon with anger-management issues. Perlman brings the New York out in Hellboy. He may be red-skinned with (filed-down) horns growing out of his head, but he acts like a plumber and he’s likeably resigned to awful sights. Selma Blair, as his girlfriend, seems a bit less pleased to be in this sequel, but that’s perhaps because she’s got the “shrew” role (it’s either that or the “ditz” if you’re playing the girlfriend, sadly). Luke Goss doesn’t disgrace himself as the bad-guy, and if he’d sung as well as he handles a sword, Bros would probably still be a pop band.
Hellboy II isn’t a movie that’s going to stun you with its originality. In truth, you’ve seen the like of its monsters before. It’s got some bright explosions and a tree beast that showers the Brooklyn Bridge with daisies when it dies… but, y’know, c’est la vie in fantasy cinema. What I did like was its good heart, and a scene, toward the end, where Selma Blair is asked to choose between her boyfriend and the fate of the world. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut (another fantasy guy who critics made time for) will recall his wise words on “happy endings” in movies (how, as long as “the lovers” are together, it’s always a happy ending, even if the world is about to be nuked by a thousand enemy jets from Mars). Hellboy isn’t afraid of Hollywood; neither is Guillermo del Toro: they both love pretty girls and whomping bad-guys.