Philip French's film of the week: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

After the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, most people will have had their fill of fantasy and fakery. But for the insatiable, there's a two-hour banquet of such fare in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a sleek action picture by Guillermo del Toro, who's making a corner for himself in the horror-fantasy world in his native Mexico, in Hollywood and in Spain. He's riding high after Pan's Labyrinth won Oscars for best cinematography, art direction and make-up and following the success of the Spanish horror movie The Orphanage, directed by his protege, Juan Antonio Bayona. His next project is a two-part version of The Hobbit from a screenplay by Peter Jackson.

Del Toro's best films, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, are rooted in the brutal experience of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath and had at least one cloven foot in reality. His first Hellboy picture, which appeared four years ago, and its sequel are lighter in tone, though more consistently violent. A comic book character created by Mike Mignola, Hellboy is a benign red creature from the underworld, the child of Lucifer, given his name by American soldiers into whose hands he falls when secret rites are being conducted by satanic Nazis in Second World War Scotland.

He's subsequently adopted and raised by Professor Trevor Broom (John Hurt), a kindly Englishman who works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development (BPRD), a top secret organisation created by President Roosevelt. In the first film, set in 2004, he's grown into a giant with a massive right-hand punch. His horns are cropped, his satanic tail drags behind him, his enemies are neo-Nazis and the malevolent reincarnated Rasputin. It's like a canny cross between Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, X-Men and Men in Black.

Hellboy II kicks off with a pre-credit scene providing a new backstory. It's Christmas 1955 and Professor Broom is telling the young Hellboy how a truce was declared in a warring society by a benevolent king, who breaks his crown into three pieces. Only when they are joined up again will fighting erupt once more between humans and an army of golden warriors. This part is rather beautifully rendered by wooden Danish puppets that convey the magic of a mythic Nordic past. Jump to the present and the evil Prince Nuada is aroused from millennial slumber to restore the crown and bring chaos to the world, though given the present situation you might wonder who'd notice.

Opposing Nuada is his beautiful twin-sister Princess Nuala and the creatures inhabiting the basement of the BPRD's headquarters in New Jersey. The joke is that they're an amiable collection of misfits devoted to the service of mankind: the wise-cracking, cigar-chomping Hellboy (Ron Perlman), his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), who breaks out in flames when emotionally aroused, and the aquatic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). They're joined from Washington by a new commander, Johann Krauss, a brilliant German who resembles an old-fashioned deep-sea diver, can send forth ectoplasm to possess other bodies and speaks a comically formal English. The only human of any significance is Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), a bald, bumbling, prissy bureaucrat from an old Hollywood tradition.

The film's first setpiece takes place in a New York auction house where part of the ancient crown is being sold. Prince Nuada appears, does unspeakable Alien-like things to the auctioneer and lets all hell loose on the fashionable bidders. This is the true stuff of nightmares as thousands of small carnivorous creatures resembling the blind, toothy figures in Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion run riot. There are numerous bizarre creatures on view later, but none this terrifying. The second setpiece is a visit to the Trolls' Market, a less congenial version of London's subterranean goblins' world in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and for some reason located beneath Brooklyn Bridge. This leads to a stupendously destructive scene where Hellboy takes on a giant plant with tentacles that grow out of a green bouncing bean. Throughout the fight, he's clutching a baby he's saved from death, sometimes holding the child with his tail; it ends with him getting no thanks from the mother.

For a while, the movie becomes contemplative, at times even tongue-in-cheek sentimental, in the magnificent library of BPRD. Abe Sapiens and Hellboy get drunk and bond in a parody of buddy movies and Abe falls in love with Princess Nuala after discovering their shared love for Tennyson's verse. This is by way of preparation for the grand finale which takes place in the magic faerie world beneath the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland. Here, a kung-fu sword-and-sorcery showdown is staged amid a giant, constantly moving, interlocking construction of cog-wheels and ratchets. The machinery, according to del Toro, is a homage to Chaplin's Modern Times. Earlier, there's a running joke in which old Universal horror flicks, The Bridge of Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon among them, are shown among the banks of CCTV screens at the BPRD headquarters.

This Hollywood movie was shot largely in Hungary, the music was recorded in London and the opening sequence was made in Denmark. The final credits conclude with the statement: 'The depictions of tobacco smoking contained in this film are based solely on artistic consideration and are not intended to promote tobacco consumption.'


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image

Peter Bradshaw: Guilty pleasures are rarely more pleasurable than this. Hellboy! The name itself is just so inspirationally silly

Peter Bradshaw

27, Aug, 2004 @12:19 AM

The Proposition

Philip French: ... both a realistic action movie and a forceful fable about the birth of a nation

Philip French

12, Mar, 2006 @1:00 AM

Article image
Ron Perlman on Pacific Rim: 'It's not like Hellboy'

He has one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood – so why has the Pacific Rim star spent so much of his career hiding behind prosthetics? And why is that all changing now?

John Patterson

11, Jul, 2013 @3:21 PM

Film of the week 2: It's that Gondor moment...

Film of the week 2: More thrills and surprises in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final part of Peter Jackson's epic trilogy. There are even some jokes.

Philip French

14, Dec, 2003 @1:03 AM

Article image
Film review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

It's dull, bone-crushing, special-effects stuff, of interest only to hardcore fans, says Philip French

Philip French

02, May, 2009 @11:01 PM

Film of the week: The Bourne Ultimatum

Philip French: The Bourne denouement leaves Matt Damon, 169 stuntmen and the audience exhausted.

Philip French

19, Aug, 2007 @8:28 AM

Other films: Friends With Money | X-Men: The Last Stand | The Thief Lord ...

Other films: Jennifer Aniston creates a buzz in a superior girl-buddy movie while the X-Men mutants, back for a third outing, score on spectacular effects. Philip French reports.

Philip French

27, May, 2006 @11:08 PM

LA goes back to basics

Sophistication has been the watchword this year. But summer, says Andrew Collins, is no time for intellectual pretensions. As X-Men shows, size is everything

Andrew Collins

14, May, 2000 @12:28 AM

How Halle beat the odds to be the perfect Storm

With the success of X-Men, Halle Berry is on the brink of major stardom. She tells Adam Smith about the stress of her recent hit-and-run incident, turning down the lead role in Speed and her unlikely Liverpudlian roots

Adam Smith and Mark Morris

19, Aug, 2000 @11:07 PM

Hugh Jackman

How do you get round the fact that the hero of your big-budget action movie is a computer hacker? Well, for the people making Swordfish - the Joel Silver thriller with John Travolta as the master villain - the answer was to cast 6ft 3in Australian Hugh Jackman. That way your code-cracking guy can also have believable punch-ups. As Jackman had gone from unknown to fast-rising star by playing Wolverine in X-Men - a part he only got because Dougray Scott was stuck doing Mission: Impossible II reshoots - it's easy to assume he is a macho guy straight from a ranch in Queensland.

15, Jul, 2001 @10:54 PM