- PURE SPECTACLE: Visual apeal is the strength of "Hellboy II."
When it comes to summer movies — and, I must admit, movies in general — I'm a sucker for spectacle. Though you might take that to mean car crashes, shoot-'em-ups and things getting blowed up real good, spectacle is about something more, I think: Namely, the director's ability to make me sit, mouth agape, in a dark room full of strangers.
While I can get there with pyrotechnics (though it takes a pretty big bang to move my jaded old heart these days), I'm much more susceptible to the spectacular artfulness of a film; what it looks like, how the colors and textures and costumes fit together on the screen. It's the quality of sheer awe, and it's a lot harder to pull off than you think.
One director who does awe exceedingly well is Guillermo del Toro. Though he's best known for his Oscar-winning “Pan's Labyrinth,” del Toro has been making audiences say “I've never seen that before” for a long time.
The latest chapter in del Toro's colorful picturebook of work is “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.” While somewhat lacking in the plot department — though easily the equal of the original — it is a film packed with moments of sheer beauty and wonder, a further glimpse inside the head of one of our greatest practicing masters of cinematic showmanship.
“The Golden Army” takes off pretty much where the original “Hellboy” left us, in the company of a band of self-described freaks who work routing the Forces of Evil for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Their de facto leader is Hellboy, an impulsive, 7-foot, blood red, horned demon who was plucked from the Great Beyond during a secret Nazi experiment during the Second World War. When the story opens, Hellboy is having woman troubles, in the form of his girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a telekinetic who can start fires with her mind. Trying to keep the peace is their friend and confidant, the fish/man hybrid Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). In the midst of this relationship hell, the BPRD learns that Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), the pale, kung-fu-fighting heir to the throne of the Elf King, has been plotting to reunite the pieces of a crown that would give him control of the fabled Golden Army, a battalion of giant, clockwork robots built eons ago by the creatures of the underworld to stave off the increasingly greedy and warlike human race. In order to stop Nuada, Hellboy and Co. must venture into the mystical underworld, a parallel universe where all manner of creatures reside, from stone giants to tiny, calcium-hungry eating machines that are the root of the Tooth Fairy legend. Giving them an assist is Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), the twin sister of Prince Nuada, who has sworn to keep her piece of the magical crown from her brother.
Though the relationship subplots quickly get tiresome and the golden crown is not much more than a MacGuffin to keep the story moving, the true appeal of “Hellboy II” is in how it looks. This film is an absolute joy to watch, with so much fascinating stuff going on — dying kings who turn to brittle ivory, angels with eyes in their wings and the like — that I often found myself wishing I could pause and rewind to make sure I saw what I thought I did. Particularly jaw-dropping is a trip Hellboy and his companions take to the hidden Troll Market under the Brooklyn Bridge. Like a cross between a Middle Eastern bazaar and the cantina on Tatooine in “Star Wars,” it's full of amazing, beautiful and downright mesmerizing creatures, all of them going about their day-to-day lives. Though the rest of the film never quite reaches that fever pitch of spectacle, there are other wondrous sights to behold.
In short, while the plot of “Hellboy II” might be a little lackluster, the direction and overall look of the film is simply something that has to be experienced to be believed. A worthy follow-up to “Pan's Labyrinth.” Be sure to catch it in the theater.