Director: Guillermo Del Toro

When you think of comic book publishers, you'll probably think of DC and Marvel first. And that's natural, since they're the biggest fishes in the pond. But similar to movies and music, comic books also have their own independent publishers who release books quite different from those carrying the DC and Marvel labels. Among the most prolific of these publishers is Dark Horse Comics, whose initial comic books hit newsstands in 1986. Dark Horse has seen many characters grace the covers of their books over the years, but one of the most memorable has been Hellboy. Created by Mike Mignola, Hellboy's supernatural adventures have earned a cult following since his first appearance in 1993. He also caught the eye of filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, a fan of the comics who brought Hellboy into the mainstream with a live-action movie released in 2004. The movie performed modestly during its theatrical run, bringing in 99 million dollars worldwide. A sequel was announced, and after spending years in pre-production and bouncing from Sony's now-defunct Revolution Studios to Universal Pictures, Hellboy II: The Golden Army saw its release on July 11, 2008. And as someone who enjoyed the first movie, I can say that the sequel lives up to all of my expectations.

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008)Centuries ago, there was a war between humans and mythical creatures for dominance of Earth. King Balor (Roy Dotrice), the ruler of the elves, released a platoon of 4,900 mechanical soldiers called the Golden Army in an effort to win the war. But when he saw the amount of merciless devastation caused by the unstoppable Golden Army, the regretful King Balor forged a truce with his foes. Humans would be allowed to live in the cities they had built, while the creatures would stay hidden in the shadows. To prevent the reactivation of the Golden Army, Balor broke the crown that controlled them into three pieces. One piece would stay in the human world, while the elves would retain possession of the other two.

Fast forward to present day. King Balor's jaded son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), has had enough of a life spent hidden away from what he considers his people's rightful kingdom. He declares war on the human world, choosing to unleash the Golden Army to accomplish his goal. Nuada violently raids an auction house to collect one piece of the fractured crown, and kills his father to acquire the second piece. When his frightened twin sister Nuala (Anna Wilson) flees with the final piece of the crown, she crosses paths with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, who themselves were investigating the attack on their auction house. The BPRD's agents — surly demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman); his pyrokinetic girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair); amphibious fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones); and their ectoplasmic supervisor, Johann Krauss (the voice of Seth MacFarlane) — offer Nuala their protection, but quickly find that opposing Nuada will be more than they bargained for.

I've read many a review that has hailed Guillermo Del Toro as a visionary filmmaker. The success of The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth have placed him at the top of the fantasy genre, earning him a reputation as a filmmaker whose creativity and imagination are worthy of respect. Del Toro has brought that creativity he's known for to Hellboy II, building a movie that will appeal to anyone who enjoys movies of its ilk. Hellboy II was released just seven days before the moneymaking juggernaut that was The Dark Knight, meaning that it probably wasn't as financially successful as it could have been. But now that it's been on DVD for a while, I hope that people will be able to discover it and see just how imaginative the movie is. Hellboy II is one of those rare sequels that actually exceeds the quality of its predecessor, and is a great movie in its own right. So let's get to the meat and potatoes of this review and see just what makes Hellboy II so great.

First up to bat is Del Toro's direction. Having been given free reign to make the most of his creativity, he uses the opportunity to build a movie whose visual flair allows the viewer's imagination to run just as wild as Del Toro's. Working with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, Del Toro creates not a series of images on a movie screen, but an entire world to get lost in. Seriously, the movie's effects wizards and production designers totally earned their paychecks. Scenes like the BPRD's visit to the Troll Market are beautifully rendered, while the digital effects are at the pinnacle of what can be done with CGI. The practical effects are no slouch either, as characters like Nuada's hulking bodyguard look fantastic. I should also give props to the score composed by Danny Elfman. I don't know if I would list his music here amongst his most memorable, but it is most certainly effective. It really assists the visuals by helping establish the mood, and I'm not sure the movie would have the same impact without Elfman's work. The only part of the music that doesn't really work is the use of the occasional pop song, none of which really suit the movie. The only song that really does work is Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You," the use of which is actually pretty funny.

Next on the list is the screenplay, penned by Del Toro and Mike Mignola. The story isn't very deep, and there really isn't any sort of underlying message or anything like that. There're also some small plot holes that are created by the denouement, though they really only bug you if you bother to linger on them long enough. I was also a wee bit disappointed that they never really delved into the potential subplot regarding Hellboy's interactions with mainstream society. But Del Toro and Mignola really do what they can to craft something entertaining. Their characters and how they interact with one another are a huge boon for the movie, and do a lot to give us something to follow besides all the pretty special effects. Del Toro and Mignola also succeed in giving us a villain that whose intentions we are, in a weird way, able to understand. He's not a megalomaniac or someone who wants to blow up the planet or anything like that; he just feels that he has been unfairly slighted, and wants to reclaim the kingdom that he believes belongs to him and his people and punish those who he feels have stolen it from him. Yeah, he's still a villain, but you can kinda understand his motivation.

But let's move on to perhaps the movie's most entertaining component, its cast. Once again playing the titular demon, Ron Perlman is pitch perfect. I honestly cannot imagine anyone else playing Hellboy, because Perlman completely owns the role. His portrayal of Hellboy is a layered one, as his surly, mischievous behavior is a cover for a longing to be accepted by the outside world and to understand his proper place in the universe. Perlman pulls this off convincingly, and I hope he continues to play the role in any future sequels. The Hellboy movies just wouldn't be the same without him. But despite the movie being titled Hellboy II, it features an ensemble cast, many of whom are also returning from the previous movie. Selma Blair reprises her role as Liz Sherman, and improves upon her performance in the previous movie. Whereas she was a troubled, confused, frightened woman before, Blair's Liz is now strong-willed, confident, and assertive. Blair handles this evolution fantastically, handing in a likable performance that I found to be different yet equal to her great work on the first movie.

Doug Jones also returns to play Abe Sapien, now having been given the extra responsibility of doing his own vocal work as well. With David Hyde Pierce of Fraiser fame having done Abe's voice in the prior Hellboy movie, Jones was stuck in a thankless position as the physical half of the character. But now voicing the character as well, Jones is allowed to put forth a more rounded performance. He's likable in the role, making the character stand out more. And considering that Jones plays two other characters as well, so I'd say he earned his paycheck. Supplying the movie's comic relief, Jeffrey Tambor and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane are both quite funny. Their dry wit in their roles as the de facto straight men goes a long way, and I enjoyed their work. And since MacFarlane's role was limited to only voiceover work, as the character was physically portrayed by John Alexander and James Dodd, he wasn't really able to interact with the rest of the cast. But he still manages to contribute some funny bits.

Rounding out the cast are Anna Wilson and Luke Goss. Wilson is okay, though the role isn't what I would call demanding,. All that's really required of her is to be a doe-eyed damsel that sits in the background while the fighting happens. Del Toro could have had her be a bit more proactive, a bit more like Princess Leia, but he didn't. It's too late to change it now, but the fact that Princess Nuala is just kinda there doesn't give Wilson any real time to shine. Goss, meanwhile, is good, but never really strikes me as being an intimidating villain. Yeah, Prince Nuada is a strong character, but ultimately, he didn't feel as threatening as he could have. Outside of kicking the crap out of Hellboy once and unleashing a monster or two, Prince Nuada is really just a big-talking megalomaniac. The only truly intimidating thing about Nuada is his fighting skills, which really begins to make you feel ambivalent towards him after a while. That's a shame too, because Goss's performance is pretty good.

It's a funny coincidence that Hellboy II was released in the same summer as Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Because if those two movies are evidence that mainstream comic book movies can be viewed as having grown up, then Hellboy II can be viewed as evidence of their artistic potential as well. Guillermo Del Toro knows exactly what he's doing, as he uses all of the tools at his disposal to craft a great movie. I'll admit that there are a few flaws, but overall, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is an entertaining piece of fantasy escapism that I can't help but like. So on my Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'm going to give it a solid four stars and a big thumbs up. It's definitely worth a watch.

Final Rating: ****