Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) – Directed by Guillermo del Toro – Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, John Hurt, and Seth MacFarlane.
It is easy to get lost in the visual splendor that is HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, because there are few films that look this gorgeous. What makes THE GOLDEN ARMY the rarest of cinematic treats is that I cannot think of any movie off the top of my head that so wonderfully blends two unique visual styles from two unique visual giants together so seamlessly and sumptuously.
Unlike the first HELLBOY and Sin City, which always strike me as Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez doing their best to bring Mike Mignola’s and Frank Miller’s comics to life, or 300 and Watchmen, where Zack Snyder’s visual style overwhelms Miller’s and Dave Gibbons’ respective styles, THE GOLDEN ARMY takes Mignola’s characters, runs them through del Toro’s universe, and both visions stay strong.
THE GOLDEN ARMY puts a smile on my face from start to finish. The film opens at Christmastime in 1955, where a pre-teen Hellboy begs his adopted father Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) to tell him a story before bed, and after a bit of hemming and hawing, he relates the story of an ancient war between humans and magical creatures. The magical creatures create the Golden Army, an unstoppable force but King Balor is horrified by what he’s done, and so forges a truce with humans. His son, Prince Nuada, is not a fan of this political move, and so he goes into exile. This whole sequence is modeled to look like the coolest Tool video ever made, as it looks like its all done with wooden puppets.
Cut to the present and things have advanced since the original HELLBOY film. Hellboy and Liz (Ron Perlman and Selma Blair) are living together inside the BPRD facility in New Jersey but Liz is feeling like she needs some space. Which is complicated by the fact that she’s pregnant. She’s not telling Hellboy because she doesn’t even realize it until after Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) senses it and tells her.
Wisely, del Toro makes the camaraderie between Hellboy, Liz, and Abe is the centerpiece of the film. While they all clearly respect and love one another, there’s all of these dual partnerships that exclude the third: Liz and Abe know Liz is pregnant but Hellboy doesn’t, Liz and Hellboy are romantically involved but Abe has no one, and Hellboy and Abe are best buddies while Liz doesn’t have a female friend anywhere. The best scene that displays this is Hellboy and Abe getting drunk together as they commiserate about women.
Abe is completely inexperienced with the opposite sex and Hellboy acts like the expert he very much is not. It’s great acting from Perlman and Jones, and when they combine to sing Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Live Without You” and get drunk on Tecate Light, they create some genuine movie magic. The song properly serves as the emotional core of the film, as our three leads all face decisions about just what they’d do without their most cherished loved one. I don’t like to tell you what to think, but if you can watch this scene and not have a smile break out across your face and don’t join in with the sing-a-long, well … you’re probably in need of your heart growing three sizes someday.
The film uses these third wheel pieces to create some tension in the narrative to work alongside the main narrative, which is the return of Prince Nuada (Luke Goss). Nuada wants to reclaim the three pieces of the magical crown that control the Golden Army, so he steals the human’s piece at an auction and then kills his dad. This gives him two pieces and his twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton), who goes into hiding until she runs into Abe and Hellboy, who bring her under BPRD protection.
The narrative is solid, and the visuals are every bit as great. There’s gorgeous sets everywhere, including the Troll’s Market, the magical beings lair beneath a bridge, and the underground city where the Golden Army waits. What’s really impressive is that these sets are rundown and kinda ugly and del Toro and his crew manage to make them look totally amazing. Part of this comes from contrasting the dull settings with bright and colorful characters, but there’s also the sheer awesomeness of the designs, which trump their conditions.
Abe ends up falling in love with Nuala, which Nuada uses to his advantage when he breaks into BPRD. It’s a quick romance, but then it’s not like they have room to stretch out Abe and Nuala’s courtship. Instead, both Abe and Nuala’s loneliness helps to create their mutual attraction, and they come off as two young people falling in love for the first time.
I was a little disappointed to see that Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) was back being a bit of an administrative prick, but the scene where he complains to Abe about Hellboy hating him is well constructed (there’s all sorts of chaos going on behind them and they just carry on a normal chat) and his anger at Hellboy wanting to let the world know of his existence is well-founded. Manning and Hellboy’s inability to get along, and Hellboy’s decision to definitively out his existence to the public during an investigation into Nuada’s destruction of the auction, forces Washington to send in Johann Strauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane and no, Strauss does not sound like Brian or Peter or Ted), a gaseous entity living inside what looks like an old diver’s suit. Strauss is a bit regimented, but he eventually joins along with our three leads to disobey orders and go after Nuada directly.
During this final sequence, Liz chooses to save Hellboy even though it means the eventual destruction of the world, and Abe does the same, giving Nuada the final piece of the magical crown that allows the Prince to raise the army out of its slumber. The final battle against the Golden Army is pretty darn great (and the largeness of the golden robots at the end of the film contrasts nicely with the battle against the small tooth fairies near the start of the film), and the army is made of what looks like large, fat, golden steampunk robots that can self-repair themselves. Del Toro uses color as well as any non-animation director working right now, and his color palette is continually changing but always rich, and making this final battle against golden robots with red energy works beautifully.
The film tries to generate some traction with the idea that Hellboy is seduced by Nuada’s urging to join the magical creatures against the humans, but it doesn’t really work, with one exception – when Hellboy kills the giant green Elemental (a gorgeously rendered creature), you feel his confusion and pain over his duty conflicting with what he feels is right. Not that it’s okay that the Elemental is flailing about the city, but the Elemental didn’t choose to be there – Nuada put him there, and Hellboy is rightly conflicted over killed the last of its kind. That scene works, but Nuada’s clumsy attempts at seduction don’t because we know that Hellboy’s heart could never seek the destruction of one side over the other.
Genocidal maniacs don’t love Barry Manilow AND Tecate Light. Fact.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is a rich, gorgeous, fun cinematic achievement. Ron Perlman, Doug Jones, Guillermo del Toro, and all the crew who contributed to the look of the film turn in high quality work, and together they produce a really fantastic movie. Now, if only they could get a third film made …