WHEN IT FIRST HIT theaters in 2004, Hellboy was something of a puzzle for audiences: No one quite knew what to make of the blood-red superhero with the devilish horns. Though not a massive flop, the film failed to equal its modest budget at the domestic box office. Yet here we are, four years later, with a new Hellboy film in cineplexes and an even larger budget than the first time around. Why?
Two things happened. The first was Hellboy's success on home video and cable television. Missed by most viewers the first time around, Hellboy's subtle humor, self-deprecating lug of a superhero, impressive creature design, and overall sense of fun have helped it hold up well on repeated viewings. If not quite a cult classic it has certainly developed a healthy following.
The second thing was the emergence of director Guillermo Del Toro as the hot new action/horror director. Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was a huge success critically and commercially, netting 6 Oscar nominations (and 3 wins) in 2007. Audiences and critics were blown away by Del Toro's vision--the creature effects, set design, and the darkness of the fairy tale story at its heart were amazing--and Del Toro was tapped to take the reins of the Lord of the Rings franchise, replacing Peter Jackson as the director of The Hobbit.
With that sort of clout, and two growing name brands for a studio to capitalize, it's no wonder that Universal ordered a sequel. And watching Hellboy II: The Golden Army, it's easy to see where the larger budget went: Hellboy II is Hellboy on steroids. Whereas the first film had three large scale action set pieces, this one has six. Hellboy had an interesting, if limited, menagerie of creepy creatures; Hellboy II has dozens of monstrous concoctions.
This film felt like two hour-long action scenes separated by five minutes of character development. The plot is secondary to the visual spectacle, and isn't terribly interesting, but here it is. It seems that, millennia ago, humans lived alongside fantastic creatures such as elves and trolls and wood nymphs. Humans were greedy and aggressive, never satisfied with what they had. After waging war on the wood folk, the king of the elves decided to raise a "golden army"--4,900 indestructible mechanical monstrosities--and after a climactic battle in which the king's robot army slaughtered the human army, the king was wracked with grief and called for a truce, which the humans quickly accepted.
But the king's son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), was unhappy with the truce and went into exile. It's now 2008, and he has decided to usurp his father and take control of the army, wreaking vengeance on the greedy humans who have pushed the mystical world underground and out of sight. Of course, only one man can stop this devilish elf: Hellboy (Ron Perlman), assisted by his girlfriend/fire manipulator Liz (Selma Blair) and water-breathing fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones).
This plot, or lack thereof, is the perfect conveyance for mindless action: Hardly five minutes go by without someone punching somebody in the face, or cutting someone's legs off, or blowing up buildings. And though the battle scenes look spectacular, they feel hollow. In Hellboy, the characters seemed to be people with real lives and real problems who, incidentally, also battle paranormal activity on the side. In Hellboy II the equation is reversed: These are characters who spend their time whaling on bad guys and, occasionally, deal with personal complications.
Which is a shame, because the real strength of Hellboy was not the creature battles but the character development. In one charming scene, Hellboy followed his putative girlfriend Liz by running across rooftops and throwing the occasional rock at her suitor, a FBI agent. But when Hellboy came a across a little kid on the roof, he stopped to chat with him about the difficulties of being in a relationship. All wrapped together it was clever, funny, and cute, and there were a number of comparable scenes.
Hellboy II has exactly one such scene: Abe and Hellboy get drunk while listening to pop songs and discussing the women in their lives. It, too, is clever, funny, and cute--and the only scene of its kind. After three minutes of dialogue, we're back to the action.
This overemphasis on action detracts from everything that made the first Hellboy so enjoyable. Perhaps, for the inevitable threequel, Gullermo Del Toro can work out the kinks in his storytelling style.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.