30 August 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army Review

Reduxed 13/09/08

The original Hellboy has sat in the ‘guilty pleasures’ section of my DVD collection since its release back in 2004. It was a massively flawed, but somehow thoroughly entertaining piece of film-making. This was mostly thanks to a decent story, a sharp, witty script and some energetically directed action sequences. And these, in turn, were thanks to an over-weight Central American man named Guillermo del Toro.

One hugely improved director’s cut and a ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ later, it has proven to be the very tip of del Toro’s imagination iceberg. So now, thanks to a strong showing on DVD from the extended cut, Universal have seen fit to unleash the Mexican Movie Magician (yes, I just coined that moniker) on a major summer blockbuster…and bloody hell, what a sight it is to behold.

This is a director at the top of his game, constrained by neither his budget, nor by studio officials insisting he reign it in for the summer audiences – and as you might have guess, the visuals are absolutely stunning. From the creature design to the costumes to the set design – all are immaculately conceived; surviving the escape from del Toro’s brain to be captured by DoP Guillermo Navarro, his camera giving them an ethereal radiance that is somehow familiar yet, at the same time, strangely other-worldly.

Notably, the use of CGI has been scaled back for this outing – with del Toro favouring on-set creations over anything pixelated. This not only serves to ground the film in its own little meta-reality, but also makes the creatures boggling – seeing as these days anyone and their dog can create CGI creature, but actually creating physical creatures? That’s both incredibly old school and ridiculously impressive – especially in the whizz-bang world of the modern blockbuster. What CGI is present is occasionally a touch on the bad side of ‘not that great’, but once the final battle with the eponymous Golden Army – the film’s most CGI-heavy sequence – is rollicking over your corneas; you’ll probably not care thanks to the sheer imagination on display in every single pixel.

But it is with this boldness of vision that one of the films downfalls rears its ugly, moss-covered head – the pacing. It’s absolutely all over the place – the film feels overlong and occasionally over-wrought, and this is almost certainly a malefic side-effect of M3 not having anyone to reign him in. To wit, not even creatures that are on-screen for less than a minute, with del Toro – and his Pan’s Labyrinth editor Bernat Vilaplana – not willing to let any of the creatures filmed escape the final cut, and this imbues the film with the reek of ‘pet project’. It’s a shame, because with a tighter edit, this could well have been the film of the summer.

The story seems almost peripheral to the visual style, but what’s there is solid and well-scripted, with a big bucket of humour thrown in for good measure.

Performance-wise, there’s a lot to like. Ron Pearlman continues to shine in the red makeup of Hellboy, tossing about quips and ‘aww crap’s with a strange grandeur – think Ian McKellen born in the Bronx with horns, and you're some of the way there. It’s perfectly fitted to the character, and – I presume – honed from the first movie into a fully-formed half-man/half-demon thing that you can’t help but love. Selma Blair earns the Most Improved Actress in this team, with her role significantly beefed up from ‘damaged firestarter’ to ‘sassy female sidekick-come-firestarter-come-love-interest’, and she admirably steps into the latter and up from the former to produce a far more interesting character than the previous movie. John Hurt also makes a welcome return as Professor Bruttenholm.

Deserving of particularly special mention are Doug Jones and Brian Steele – Jones portraying the strange, telepathic fish-man Abe Sapien, as well as two other minor creature roles, and Brian Steel in the big, cumbersome suit of Mr Wink. Both do incredible work, with Jones in particular – now saddled with voicing Abe as well as providing the physical performance – producing a memorable and emphatic piece of creature acting. In short, he pisses all over Andy Serkis and his Gollum – this guy doesn’t need computers to be an incredible creature actor.

There’re a couple of bum notes: Jeffrey Tambor’s DPRD chief feeling completely unnecessary, and doesn’t Tambor know it – aside from a couple of solid laughs, his performance might as well not be there for all the good he brings to the screen. Luke Goss does his best but still can’t bring anything except a physical finesse to the main villain, Prince Nuada.

Inevitably, however, the bad is supremely outweighed by the good – the only way you can’t be impressed with this movie is if you’re a keen supporter of the Dogme 95 movement. Catering to both fans of fantasy and action adventure, this is the second comic book movie – along with The Dark Knight – this summer that somehow becomes more than what it should be. The Dark Knight became a dark, powerful examination of justice and the fragility of human tenacity; Hellboy 2 has decided to become a small, visually sumptuous art-house movie. Well, they can’t all go in the same direction…

Ross' Rating: 8/10