Saturday, December 19, 2015

Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2007)

Hellboy (2004)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Flawed, but singular and fun.

Hellboy is a curious entry into the world of film adaptations of comic book superheroes. Noted horror/fantasy/science-fiction director Guillermo del Toro went against the then-forthcoming grain of comic book movies when he opted to adapt the little-known cult comic, Hellboy, created and drawn by Mike Mignola. It ended up being a strong pairing of creative forces.

Hellboy quickly introduces the title character as a baby demon pulled into our world at the end of World War II. He was meant to be one of several diabolical, Lovecraftian monsters drawn down by the mad monk Rasputin in order to wreak havoc on Earth. Rasputin's plot is initially foiled, but not before the young demon is found by a platoon of U.S. troops. He is dubbed "Hellboy" and taken under the wing of  Professor Bloom, an expert on the occult and attache to the Allied platoon who finds Hellboy. Over the next several decades, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is raised by Bloom into a massive, red-skinned, long-horned, amazingly strong force against supernatural attacks on mankind.

The movie still feels unique, even amidst the modern deluge of superhero, fantasy, and science fiction films. While it certainly hits all of the familiar marks of those genres - a threat to the world; dazzling superpowers; large-scale battles - Hellboy does it in its own ways. The "superteam" whom Hellboy works with is made up of oddities and outcasts, but very sympathetic ones. There are plenty of amusing quirks in the film: Hellboy's love of cats and beer; his often misplaced confidence; the strange and damaged super beings who comprise Hellboy's team. These all make it feel rather different from nearly all other action fantasy movies. Also, being a Guillermo del Toro movie, the horror elements are done very well, though they are softened with much more levity than his graver films like Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone.

Hellboy's main weakness is that it doesn't completely flesh out all of its elements. The relationships between Hellboy and his team have some fun and interesting dynamics, but their history is never explored enough to become truly gripping. The Rasputin character is interesting in his potential power, but he is little more than a one-dimensional bad guy looking to rule the world. The brilliant Ron Perlman does as much as possible with the script, but the gags and one-liners can be hit-or-miss. These are a few of the areas of potential which went untapped in the film.

This is still a fun movie, and definitely one which fans of superhero flicks should watch or regularly revisit. It's a great alternative to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I love) and its competitors.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Arguably an improvement on the original in several ways, despite exhibiting some of the same weaknesses. In short, it's another fun chapter in the off-beat superhero series.

All of the strengths of the first film remain intact here. The title monster hunter is still as fun and snarky as ever, and his teammates are still quirky misfits that wouldn't be found in other blockbuster superhero movies (except maybe Guardians of the Galaxy). The visual effects are strong, and del Toro still opts for costumes and make-up over CGI whenever possible, a choice which I hold in very high regard.

The leg up that this sequel has is that the villain has more depth that the first film (or most other action and adventure films). The back story here is that many millenia prior, the world was ruled by a race of elves, which had built an army of hulking mechanical warriors - the titular "Golden Army," which was reputed to be unstoppable in battle. Despite commanding this force, the king of the elves was betrayed, and the key to the army was lost to time. That is until our story begins, when the exiled elf Prince Nuada decides to track down the key, use it to reclaim the Golden Army, and reclaim dominance over Earth. Nuada actually evokes more sympathy than most villains, which adds a bit of richness far too often lacking in such movies (I'm looking at you, Marvel Cinematic Universe).

The playful sense of wonder is on full display here. As Hellboy and his crew track Nuada's whereabouts and uncover his plans, we get plenty of great set pieces, odd monsters both large and small, and an ever-deepening mythology which never takes itself overly serious. While the relationship between Hellboy and his teammate Liz often has a screwball feel which I can do without, this is still a great fantasy action movie that's well worth watching every year or two.

As of writing this, we are now eight years into the "Hellboy 3" rumor cycle. I, for one, would gladly go and watch another of these films. While the MCU's Guardians of the Galaxy was widely lauded for being a fun, anti-establishment departure from its MCU brethren, people seem to forget that many of those charming elements in Guardians had already been done by del Toro in his Hellboy movies ten years prior. We could use a few more pure popcorn movies that are high on fun while lying a tad outside of the box. Another Hellboy would give it to us.