The Devil's In The Details

The phenomenal success of his Spanish Civil War fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth turned Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro into a force in world cinema, but he goes back to his comic-book roots for his follow-up Hellboy II: The Golden Army, delivering an even-better sequel to his 2004 comedy-action-adventure, this time pitting his demonic hero against a mechanical army led by a goblin king determined to rid the world of humans.

Having already shown us Hellboy’s beginnings, summoned from hell by Rasptin (to help the Nazis fight WWII), Del Toro opens with his adopted father Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) telling the red-faced, horned and now five year old demon a bedtime story. Here, in a beautifully realised stop-motion animation, we see the origins of the story to come – an ancient war between humanity and goblins - while teasing us with just how achingly gorgeous it will be.

In the short version, man and fairy share an uneasy truce: we get the cities, they keep the forests. But humanity has reneged on the deal, and destroyed the natural world. In an effort to save his people, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) defies his father the king of the goblins and plots to awaken the Golden Army: 70 times 70 robot warriors buried under the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. Standing against him in the upcoming battle is the fire-engine faced Hellboy (Ron Perlman), his fire-spewing lover Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and super-intelligent merman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), who all work for a secret government agency, keeping the real world safe from fantastical creatures. Tensions mount when their boss (the very funny Jeffrey Tambor) drafts in a new mission specialist, an ectoplasmic German called Johann Krauss who has been transformed into a wisp of shape-shifting smoke, trapped inside a clanking bell-diver’s suit.

Ron Perlman gives another winning performance as the cigar-choming, wise-crack spouting anti-hero, his massive chest carved with arcane tattoos and his right arm cast in crunching concrete. He’s tough on the outside, but tender underneath, loving kittens and Barry Manilow and desperate not to lose the love of his life, Liz. This romantic element is sustained with surprising effectiveness throughout the adventure to come, a sign of the film’s true intentions, to marry explosive action and eye-popping monsters with the grand themes of love, unity and ecology. This last element, the death of the natural world, is lyrically communicated in a vast sequence where Hellboy must battle a leafy, green God of the Woods and later, strike a bargain with the Angel of Death, a gruesome creature with a hundred eyes strewn across its black wings.

There are echoes of the classics of fantasy cinema throughout Hellboy II; a princess carrying a powerful charm from Star Wars, the half-forgotten fairy folk asserting their right to live as they do in Narnia while the endlessly fascinating Troll Market brings to mind the hidden places of Harry Potter. Del Toro isn’t paying homage; he goes deeper than that, taking as his source the stories that inspired these stories. Filled with moments of genuine visual wonder, the film is a unique accomplishment, standing in stark contrast to the soulless production-line of summer blockbuster entertainment, made to achieve a profit margin. Del Toro has loftier targets to hit.

This is a filmmaker with a unique way of seeing the world, but better than that, he has an innate understanding of how myths legends work in the mind of the viewer. He knows what it is about legends that entertain us and how, when properly told, they can still deliver powerful messages.

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