If anyone ever had any doubts as to Guillermo del Toro's genius, Hellboy II should put them to rest once and for all. Smart, funny and a visual wonder, del Toro's follow-up to the 2004 original far surpasses anything anyone has ever seen on screen. Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a character who first appeared in the Mike Mignola comic of the same name, grew up listening to his father's (John Hurt) stories about the elfin (or is it elvin?) kingdom's long ago war with man. To defeat mankind, King Balor (Roy Dotrice, a regular on Perlman's 80's series Beauty and the Beast) commissions the Golden Army; an indefatigable and indestructible army of automatons, 70 times 70 in number, powered by magic and governed by a golden crown. When an ever-lasting truce between the two worlds is called, Balor breaks the crown into three pieces, so that no one person can ever control the Golden Army again. Flash forward to the present when Balor's son Prince Nuada (Blade II's Luke Goss) returns from a self-imposed exile, intending to reunite the crown's pieces and reawaken the Golden Army in order to wrest the Earth back from an ecologically irresponsible humanity. It is up to Hellboy; his new wife, human torch Liz (Selma Blair); Gill-man with a brain (and heart) Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and the rest of the secret governmet band of supernatural heroes to stop Nuada and save mankind from utter extinction (which, of course, is every super hero's job, anyway).
But such a heavily truncated synopsis can't convey the artistry, humanity and humor of del Toro's most ambitious film to date. 2005's Pan's Labyrinth may be del Toro's allegorical masterpiece (personally, I think it's the first true cinematic masterpiece of the 21st century), but Hellboy II is one of the must visually stunning movies you will ever see. The trailer's don't even come close to the visual orgy on the screen. And I'm telling you now, do NOT wait to see this film on DVD. It is a big-screen movie and so deserves to be seen as such.
After a nasty fight with thousands of Tooth-Fairies - nasty little white buggies who feed on bones (and teeth, in particular) - Hellboy and company soon find themselves in search of Nuada, first venturing into the Troll Market hidden beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. I can only describe the Troll Market as a fairy-tale version of the Star Wars cantina, but with infinitely more going on. Every inch of the screen is filled with astounding sights, some which last mere seconds; each of which is breathtaking. In fact, there is so much to look at in this film, one's eyes are exhausted by the end. But you honestly don't mind.
There are monsters and giants; the Angel of Death; a forest god (a vegetable creature that makes an Ent- that's a Lord of the Rings reference, for all you non-geeks out there - look like a twig); a drunken Barry Manilow sing-along; an exceptionally cool final blade fight, staged on a gigantic watchwork mechanism; an unexpected romance and exactly the right amount of humor.
Perlman was born to play Hellboy. After many years of playing parts while buried under layers of latex, he has perfected the craft, elevating the character into a most human creation, despite his hellish birthright. Early on, Hellboy fully outs himself and his secret team, causing no end of consternation to his boss (the always hilarious Jeffrey Tambor). But the team quickly find themselves labeled as freaks and reviled for their unusual appearances and natures. The hurt in Perlman's eyes as Hellboy realizes he isn't the beloved hero he thinks he is, is palpable. The beautiful Selma Blair - always an interesting actress to watch, no matter what the genre - has taken the (literally) fiery Liz to a new level (though some might consider Liz a bit stereotypically 'hormonal'). Doug Jones as Abe gets to use his real voice this time around (David Hyde Pierce dubbed Abe's lines in the original), and manages a sweet and significantly less fey performance. Jones, who appeared as both the Faun and the Grey Man in Pan's Labyrinth, also plays the square-headed Chamberlain and the Angel of Death, whose eyes are arranged amongst its wings and whose head is shaped like a stylized shovel. "Family Guy" creator and voice artist, Seth MacFarlane voices the newest member of the team, Johann Krauss; an officious being who consists of vaporous ectoplasm and functions mostly within a containment suit which resembles nothing less than Steam Punk diving apparatus. Plus, there is a very funny, though exceptionally inside joke; a tribute to John Landis that only the geekiest of movie geeks like myself would get. (if you saw the movie and know the reference, leave a comment - we have a lot to talk about).
Del Toro's script is solid, though I must admit to one tiny quibble. The unit of the agency for which Hellboy works, is supposed to be located in Trenton, NJ. I was born in Trenton. I live 20 minutes from Trenton. I saw the movie in Hamilton, which is Trenton's closest suburb. Trenton is located along the Delaware River. As a matter of fact, it is practically in the center of the Delaware Valley. The grandiose agency's headquarters is depicted as being atop an isolated cliff, ostensibly in the middle of this rather small, formerly industrial and relatively flat state capital. But if that's all I have to complain about, then it's only something someone from Trenton would complain about, and shouldn't sway anyone (Trentonian or not) from seeing this jaw-droppingly gorgeous film. ***** (Five Stars)