Hellboy II - The Golden Army Review
Perhaps because of its flaws as much as anything else, Guillermo del Toro’s 'Hellboy' continues to be a very interesting film. Released in 2004, del Toro’s take on Mike Mignola’s comics is certainly enjoyable in itself, but is also revealing of a great deal about its fêted director and about comic book adaptations generally. Now, it’s also a useful comparison point for its fairytale sequel, 'Hellboy II – The Golden Army'.
Prior to the release of 'Hellboy', it’s probably fair to say that Mignola’s caustic demon remained relatively unknown (or at least lesser-known). Informed by his long-standing love of the comics, del Toro’s 'Hellboy' is occasionally great and features some terrific characters (including Hellboy himself), but is unfortunately let down by a disappointing ending, some ill-judged villains and a few too many concessions to convention. Not unlike del Toro’s other English-language films, particularly 'Blade II', 'Hellboy' is accessible, well-paced and entertaining, but ultimately remains too formulaic and unsurprising. Placed next to 'Cronos' and 'The Devil’s Backbone', 'Hellboy' is also another del Toro film that never fulfils its potential, winding up a little flat and underwhelming. Crucially though, Hellboy the character and 'Hellboy' the film won over enough people that the aforementioned sequel was agreed. Now, by way of the Spanish Civil War, some encouraging trailers and the most unimaginative poster possible, Red’s back, and with no little expectation…
In recent interviews promoting 'The Golden Army', del Toro has been pretty candid in identifying the various faults and shortcomings in 'Hellboy'. Most significantly in terms of 'Hellboy 2', however, del Toro has been particularly effusive when discussing his approach to the first film – despite his beliefs at the time, del Toro has now accepted that 'Hellboy' is his variation on Mignola’s comics rather than the comics as film. Recognising that this approach was somewhat misplaced, del Toro has dispensed with such aspirations for 'The Golden Army'.
Although it remains unspecified, 'Hellboy 2' seems to follow on more or less directly from the events at the end of the first film. From the very beginning, however, it is apparent that things have changed, and what follows is del Toro’s Hellboy: a companion piece to Mignola’s comics and a film that also moves away from its prequel.
First and foremost, the concerns and motifs in 'The Golden Army' are more obviously those of del Toro’s other films; with its religious imagery, many more clockwork characters and countless hybrid creatures, 'Hellboy 2' is Hellboy by way of 'Pan’s Labyrinth' and 'Cronos'.
In some ways this change works very well. The shift in emphasis feels logical and organic for the most part – the occult to the mythical is not a giant step, and del Toro relishes the creative freedom, creating some fantastically imaginative characters and one highly memorable set. As the pre-release stills and trailers had suggested, 'The Golden Army' looks superb at times, full of colour, texture and a rare sense of imagination and integrity; everyone involved with the animatronics and effects deserves an awful lot of credit, as does del Toro’s long-established cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro. It is also refreshing and inspiring to see a character like Wink created almost entirely without recourse to CGI. Likewise Red, who never gets lost in a CG mess in the way that Venom does, for example. Of course this does make it something of a shame that some of the sets and shots are more prosaic, but this is only a very slight criticism.
Added to this, it’s arguable that 'The Golden Army' presents the juxtaposition of the humankind with the mythical world in a more effective way than any of del Toro’s other films, even 'Pan’s Labyrinth', where the two worlds (and stories) only really merged at the end of the film. Here, both worlds complement and conflict throughout, allowing for some great sequences.
The downside to this change is just as significant though, with del Toro accommodating his creatures to a fault. Notably, the film’s plot is too-often distracted and predictable, as well as suffering from disappointing conveniences and contrivances. Alongside this, dialogue stutters horribly at times, and del Toro’s attempts to add complexity to his characters verge on the clumsy.
It is unfortunate then that these failings are particularly to the detriment of the film’s chief enemy, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss). In asking Goss to reprise his role from 'Blade II', del Toro tries to give 'Hellboy II' its Kroenen, a threat sitting apart from the extremes of good and evil, and a character who aspires to be more than a pantomime villain or a caricature. As suggested though, Nuada’s character is not realised as well as he might be, and it is a real shame that del Toro doesn’t allow Goss and Perlman a little more time together to explore Nuada’s motives and contemplate Red’s (shared) otherness. Still, Nuada is unquestionably more involved and more energetic than Rasputin was in 'Hellboy', and in tandem with Wink they make for a considered pairing.
In continuing to reset some of Mignola’s characters, it is also possible that 'The Golden Army' will leave behind certain sets of fans, and the question of whether fans of the comics will warm to the film is a tricky one. In some ways Red is closer to his original self, in other ways not. More than this, however, Liz and Abe have been taken even further from their alter egos in this film, affirming their places as movie staples: the Love Interest and the Sidekick. Again, this is part of the move towards del Toro’s Hellboy, and again, it only works in part.
Perhaps an unexpected result of these shifts is that 'Hellboy II' feels more like an alternate take on Hellboy rather than a sequel - it may even be the film that 'Hellboy' would have been had del Toro not struggled to balance his ideas with Mignola’s creation. In this, 'The Golden Army' can be readily watched without any knowledge of the first film, but the upshot of this situation is that the sum of the two films is no more than their two parts; where great sequels add to their prequels, 'Hellboy II' sits alongside 'Hellboy', a different film but not really a sequel.
Just as unexpected is the balance of the film: if the trailers had suggested that 'The Golden Army' is full of action and fighting, this is not quite the case. Indeed, with the exception of the well choreographed final battle, action sequences are actually fairly brief and infrequent. It’s also disappointing that the film never seems to excite or grip in the same way that 'The Dark Knight' does.
These reservations are balanced by other successes, however. Like 'Hellboy', 'The Golden Army' benefits from some spot-on casting. Perlman returns as the gruff hero and is, if anything, even better than he was in the first film – he is certainly funnier and more human. Del Toro has said in interviews that he only sees Perlman in the role, and it’s difficult to argue with this assertion: he is perfect for a character that offers simple solutions to any and every situation.
The film itself is also generally funnier than 'Hellboy', with Red and Abe sharing some great scenes. The new addition to the team, Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane), is also well-judged and has some very funny lines. Again though, there is a but here: where some will relish del Toro’s light hearted approach to character development, others may find it too quirky or even dull.
Special mention should also go to Doug Jones and Brian Steele, both of whom perfectly disappear into the multiple roles that they take on. Whether Jones’ reading of Abe is as good as David Hyde Pierce’s in the first film is more difficult to say, especially since Pierce did a remarkable job and assumed the role first. Best to say that Jones does pretty well, but some people will notice the difference more than others.
Lastly, there are also lots of little details and nods to other films that work brilliantly – the symmetries and inversions in Wink’s character design, for example, are especially good. There are certainly too many of these touches to appreciate in one watch, and it could be that 'The Golden Army' really benefits from repeated viewings.
All of which leaves 'The Golden Army' as a pretty difficult film to sum up. For every moment that works brilliantly, there is another to undermine it; for every character that works brilliantly, there is a clumsiness that disappoints. If 'The Golden Army' is better than 'Hellboy', then it’s not by a lot – certainly not by as much as many hoped and expected, and it’s likely that some people will prefer the focus of the original over the more fanciful elements of this sequel. As such, 'The Golden Army' feels like pretty much every other del Toro film to date, in that it never really fulfils its potential.
Indeed, despite directing some films of real promise, it’s arguable that del Toro is yet to make a great one. Despite some heady expectations, his Spanish-language films still come closest, with 'The Golden Army' sitting alongside his English language films to date: enjoyable – very much so at times, but not quite good enough to merit an unreserved recommendation.