The opening credits of "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" shout writer/director Guillermo del Toro's presence (fantastical underworld full of gears and moving parts), and from the beginning of the narrative it's very del Toro as well (it's a fairy tale, but this isn't Mother Goose).
In many ways, "Hellboy II" is a lot like "Pan's Labyrinth," if you pumped the latter full of steroids and quadrupled its budget. Frankly, while I liked much of "Hellboy II" visually, the purist in me prefers the del Toro minus the 'roids and the bloated budget.
Steroid enhanced or no, del Toro's skill is undeniable. Certainly, over the past couple of years the man simply has no equal when it comes to putting imaginary worlds, complete with the creatures that inhabit them, on screen. "Pan's Labyrinth" was truly remarkable and completely brand new when it hit American movie theaters in 2006.
The Hellboy franchise is, of course, already one movie old, with del Toro taking the helm for the sequel. Still, the look and feel of the film's main characters had more or less been established. So it's not in Hellboy or his cohorts that del Toro's brilliance shows up, but rather in the broad spectrum of supporting characters and the hidden worlds they explore.
Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) is the key figure opposite Hellboy in del Toro's story. It is pretty easy to fall into the never ending minutiae of del Toro's intricate fairy tales, but I'll boil this one down like this: Prince Nuada hates the human race and he's decided it's time to activate an indestructible army of golden robots in order to rid the planet of humanity. Hellboy, despite being ridiculed by the human public even when he's leaping around saving babies, is our defender. Eventually it all leads to the inevitable showdown between Nuada and Hellboy.
None of that really matters as much as the fact that along the way there are all kinds of cool creatures to encounter, battles to fight, and new worlds to discover. That's what del Toro does best. Oh, and the golden robots - a cross between Michael Bay's "Transformers" and the peaceful guardians in Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" - are extremely freaking cool.
What del Toro perhaps lacks at this point is the ability to infuse the comedy into an action-comedy. Much of the Hellboy ad campaign is centered on Hellboy himself being a wise-cracking, cigar smoking, beer guzzling hero. For the most part, though, del Toro's script misfires on what is supposed to be the wise-cracks and witty banter.
Yes, it's funny when Hellboy and Abe (the mentally powerful fish-like dude) get drunk and bellow love ballads together, but other than that there really isn't much successful comedy. What we're left with, then, is a mostly serious action film that is visually interesting and sometimes exciting but feels hollow without that important element of humor.
In the unintentional comedy department, the film's score also deserves mention. It'd be interesting to hear it by itself, in your car maybe. It's borderline unbearable with goofy comic book characters trudging about on the big screen; I suspect on its own the film's score might cause drivers to veer suddenly off the road and directly into a ditch.
Call me a buzz-kill, but I say it's a bad sign when a soundtrack is so blaringly cheesy that it's noticeable more than once. It's pretty much the polar opposite of the score for "Pan's Labyrinth."
The saving grace for "Hellboy II," though, is that there is just enough of "Pan's Labyrinth" mixed in to make it an enjoyable summer flick.
Chester Duke Carson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.