“Hellboy II: The Abe Sapien Story”

At least maybe that’s what I would have called it, but more on that in a bit.

I should first say that I was coming to Hellboy II in the same way that my sis approached the Lord of the Rings movies — not as a fan of the original stories and author but of the director with the project. This doesn’t mean I hate Mike Mignola or anything; far from it — but my knowledge of the Hellboy universe is very limited, simply because his work is one of eight million things out there that sounds pretty damn interesting but which I haven’t had the time/opportunity/inclination to fully pursue. When I was out in NYC just now friend Efrem turned out to be a major Mignola addict and I spent a little time browsing through an overall guidebook to the series as well a few of the issues, and clearly the guy is a major dude in both story construction and his art — and the fact that he grew up as a total bookstore fiend in 1970s San Francisco and imbibed the likes of Lovecraft and M R James and more besides is an even better sign. So one day I’ll properly investigate.

What I do know is that the movie Hellboy isn’t the original print one, a distinction happily kept in mind — most obviously perhaps in the romantic relationship between Hellboy and Liz in the movies, which exists only there — but on the flipside, that has to mean that the movies need to stand on their own merits. And as mentioned I was looking forward to another Hellboy movie not so much because of Mignola, whose involvement was again intentionally tangential, but because of the returning director — Guillermo del Toro.

Interesting guy, del Toro. I kinda see him as what Kevin Smith ultimately WANTS to be, which may raise hackles. Smith, frankly, bugs me — on the one level he’s a perfect success story, on the other hand what he’s succeeded at is creating his own fanboy zone that he will never quite stray from. del Toro’s own open fanboyism is tempered with both obvious ambition that he can actually realize and a sense of thematic reach that goes beyond simply matters of design, though arguably his visual stamp, now placed all the more strongly with time as his successes have continued, will remain his strongest calling card. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do with The Hobbit movies — clearly he and Peter Jackson recognized kindred souls in each other beyond the beards — while Pan’s Labyrinth, as I discussed here, is a stunning, moving piece of fantasy as blood-soaked political melodrama.

So seeing Hellboy II in the wake of that latter film’s success was always going to be key, the original film having enough points and enough of a financial grounding to warrant the making of a second. Perhaps it is counter intuitive but I actually prefer second films in a series more than the first because the first must to one extent or another act as an origin story if it is not meant to be fully self-contained, and time has to be taken to establish that which might otherwise be spent more effectively on other matters. But that’s a criticism without an easy solution — you have to give an audience *something,* even if only enough for them to make connections on their own — and so from there one just has to go forward. If you think about ‘second’ films in the genres of the fantastic, English language at least, you’ll find many standouts — The Empire Strikes Back might be the most obvious, while I have a strong hunch that The Dark Knight will rank up there.

This all said, I wasn’t going in to overthink Hellboy II (though I suppose by writing all this I have now) — mentioning The Dark Knight is a useful comparison point between this almost seems like it was intentionally going to be the counterpoint to that film’s apparently hyperdriven dramatic intensity, where the shadows will keep growing darker as it progresses. In contrast is the wickedly sharp touch of Hellboy’s breeziness, perhaps the key element that Mignola discovered when creating the character — being raised by a bunch of grouchily tenderhearted World War II vets as well as a scholarly professor was a stroke of observational genius, emphasizing in simple but straightforward terms that background is nothing without societal context as well (consider the Harold and Kumar films as equally representational, say). del Toro was spot on to argue for the casting of Ron Perlman for the part in the first place, while Selma Blair and the team of Doug Jones’s amazingly sinuous acting and David Hyde Pierce’s ghost-of-C3P0 voicework did a great job in the first film and pretty much just had to keep it going in the next one [EDIT: though Bo Jackson Overdrive on ILE indicates that this time around it was just Jones straight up — very cool if the case]. Throw in Jeffrey Tambor nebbishing it up again and an introductory flashback turn from John Hurt as Professor Bruttenholm and all seemed well heading in.

Meantime the inclusion of someone I’d completely forgotten had already been a bad guy for del Toro before in Blade II — Luke Goss, one of the two key members of late-eighties UK boy band craze Bros, who’s since carved out a steady niche acting role for himself — was serviceable enough, having to play a self-exiled elf prince come to reclaim his inheritance and kill off most of humanity while he was at it. More on him in a minute as well as other bad guy stuff, but the larger point — there was an established story, specifically in the film medium, to play on, a director having received the best kudos of his career yet, and a team that knew what they were doing, acting, technical work, whatever. I figured I’d just let it happen and be entertained.

And I was…but still kinda let down.

Going into the full details of the story would spoil it but by default I’ll address some — still, if there’s a key problem with Hellboy II, it’s simply that you can see the joins. To elaborate: quite clearly del Toro is having a great, great time riffing on any number of his favored fantasy film and film classic touchstones, no less so than, say, Wall-E did. They even share a key influence, Blade Runner, though maybe not in the most obvious way — the troll market sequence, with its multispecies/multilingual creatures, resembles both the similar market sequence and the roving crowds of types throughout the earlier film. Comedically Men in Black already was an unavoidable influence, with the crowds of anonymous besuited agents under Tambor’s nervous command, but also bits like the browbeating of the Scottish monster with a canary and more besides. There’s even what appears to be a Cloverfield homage — be interesting to know when the full sequence was created, before or after that film’s release — where a huge plant monster sinuously rises up in a Brooklyn street, tentacles writhing around flying helicopters. Plenty more connections can be made.

These factors aren’t a problem — again, as with Wall-E, it’s all in how you combine and recombine them and on that front del Toro, like Mignola himself, does a fine job. The real joins and the real clunkers come from the inescapable feeling that every few minutes the question of who this film was made for and aimed at keeps cropping back up. You can almost feel the studio leaning over del Toro’s shoulder at points, and that makes for a very choppy film.

This is hard for me to fully spell out right this second, having just seen the film and still digesting it. But over on ILE, this observation from Rock Hardy seemed more than fair: “It looked great, excellent character design and production design, but everything else was reheated leftovers.” What Hellboy II is trying to be is a solid mainstream fantasy/action entertainment that is very much located in its time and place — it is aiming for levels of expectation, now held by audiences, studios and filmmakers alike. It is also trying to do so while meeting expectations of larger conventions beyond that on a romantic level, in terms of everything from ‘meet cute’ to the idea that the expectation of a child magically transforms everything in a relationship from troubled to better. And further, it is trying to do that while being a Guillermo del Toro film where he’s going “My imagination can run riot and I’m getting paid to do so? Oh hell yeah,” though at the same time he’s doing so with his own particular conventions having been clearly established, from Doug Jones’s peerless, elegant mime work to creatures with eyes in unusual places and more besides. At its best, as with the Angel of Death sequence towards the end, the results can be breathtaking.

This kind of balancing act can work — it’s not that it’s not worth the effort — but it’s also pretty damn tricky to pull off. On balance, it might come down to this: the built-in irreverence of Hellboy’s character — wisecrack as distraction and tension-reliever, the kind of thing that made Philip Marlowe such an effective character in Raymond Chandler’s hands — is the kind of thing that, in this film at least (and again, separate from Mignola’s work), isn’t fully trusted by the filmmakers. Referring again to the ILE thread, there’s a brief back and forth starting here which illustrates the problem — are the filmmakers in toto having enough fun to keep the story rolling along with the serious points, or are the serious points undercutting the lighter-but-not-without-weight spirit of Hellboy as a character?

This is all a bit abstract if you haven’t seen the film, but let me spell out something more directly towards the end of it, so spoilers for this paragraph at least: Luke Goss’s character is one of those ‘yeah, evil, but he’s evil only between we mere humans are evil, oh the humanity/nonhumanity’ types, not an unfamiliar trope. He’s not meant to be funny though he is archly and delicious evil nonetheless, slaughtering any number of people as he goes, including his own father. As the voice of ‘the other’ to Hellboy, asking him more than once point blank about what he thinks he is doing by helping humans, he acts as the articulator for a key theme of the character carried over from Mignola. And finally he has to die on a note of demi-redemption — just — arguing that in the end he did it all to prevent humanity from destroying all that is magic in the world, even when he’s already committed some pretty foul deeds already. He’s a character broadly painted in shades of grey and the result just doesn’t quite work in the end — Goss plays the character well, but the character itself feels squashed by the plot in unintended directions.

This same strange tension rumbles beneath much of the film, but there’s one near-escapee — Abe Sapien, the Jones/Pierce hybrid character [EDIT though as noted in the earlier edit, while that was the case for the first film it appears to be only Jones this time out here]. On the ILE thread, Ethan bitterly says “also just in case the love story between hellboy & liz wasn’t tacked on enough we get one that makes their unconvincing relationship seem like fuckin casablanca,” referring to Abe and the elf princess’s own failed not-quite-romance. It’s another example of tropes gone wild, for sure — a whirlwind romance never whirled quite so quickly — though there is a hell of a tragic payoff visually towards the end (no details but when I saw it I thought, indirectly, of Kurosawa’s Ran).

But the trick is that in that arc — and in the movie — Jones and crew NAIL it. Their performance in the first Hellboy was notable enough and this is mostly an extension of it, but one where the elegant confusion and awkwardness of Sapien, however set to a predetermined pattern, works. Hot on the heels of Wall-E it’s interesting to see how both conform to a larger cliche — the self-consciously awkward geek stutteringly shy in the presence of beauty — but I found myself wanting to see even more of Sapien on the screen, though he gets a good amount of time as it is. And had the movie had him as the central character, I almost wouldn’t’ve minded, though it would have had to be a much different film.

Perhaps the funniest moment in the film made me link of nothing less than Judd Apatow’s trademark of dudes in confusion being soppy with each other about their travails — in this case, Hellboy and Sapien blasted out of their mind on cheap beer and listening to Barry Manilow. Somehow a moment like that — where Hellboy is all too ‘human’ — captures the whole built-in confusion and sense of identity of the character better than all the bits about fighting one’s own kind, becoming a dad, getting fed up with the bureaucracy. A great moment in film? Nah, just a surprisingly effective and humorous sequence. But its existence shows how close del Toro and company got to a really good film.

Still, the Golden Army itself, with the armor and the gears and all — that’s one hell of a design. Go enjoy the look of the film at least, and imagine what del Toro plus WETA will mean for Tolkien. But see it on a matinee if you must.

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