Hellboy II: The Golden Army

In theaters.

Well, if nothing else, writer-director Guillermo del Toro can still create a gorgeous image. His creepy beasties are memorable and immediately identifiable, and he has a real knack for creating a striking tableau. But I’m a little concerned about the deterioration of his storytelling abilities. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is rich with subtext, nuanced characterizations, and dramatic power. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) has a beautiful narrative arc with a devastating climax. Even Blade II (2002) has a darkly twisty plot and a surprisingly emotional finish.

But Hellboy II is silly even for a summer movie. It has no sense of momentum or peril and the weakest, most transparent conclusion I’ve seen in an ages. Predictability isn’t even the real issue. Inevitability can feel fated and tragic, but here it’s just stupid. The first big scene with the villain telegraphs exactly how he’ll meet his doom, and he could, in fact, be taken out at any point after that, without any muss at all. When the end finally arrives, it’s not triggered by anything, really, but the fact that the movie is on its final reel, which makes the scene ludicrously anticlimactic. That’s just bad storytelling. I wasn’t anticipating a masterpiece, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something halfway decent from a guy with a Oscar nomination for best original screenplay on his résumé.

The titular protagonist of Hellboy II is a demonic creature who was found and adopted in infancy by a kindly professor who worked in paranormal research for the U.S. government. Nurture overcame nature, and the fully grown Hellboy (Ron Perlman) works as a secret government agent, defending frightened, ungrateful humans against various occult forces. This time the big bad is an angry elf prince who wants to break his people’s ancient truce with humanity by reviving a long-dormant invincible mechanical army.

The movie makes feints at an environmental message (the nature-loving elf is angry in part because humans are destroying the earth) and toys with Hellboy’s angst at being allied with creatures who instinctively dislike and mistrust him, but del Toro doesn’t do much with any of that. Most of the character arc, such as it is, is devoted to Hellboy’s tempestuous relationship with his pyrokinetic girlfriend, Liz (Selma Blair).

I hate their relationship. Its fireworks lead to a lot of drunken moaning between Hellboy and his friend and colleague Abe about how difficult women are—truly clichéd garbage that a third-rate stand-up comic would reject as played out—but worse that that is the reconciliation. Contrary to what the happily swooning strings on the score might believe, “I can turn my back on the whole world as long as you stay with me” is not a romantic sentiment, especially when juxtaposed against the similarly dysfunctional instant love connection between Abe and the elf prince’s twin sister. If this queasy would-be lovey-dovey crap is supposed to make the comic-book flick more palatable to women, it fails miserably, at least as far as I’m concerned.

True, del Toro still delivers some ravishing imagery. The demise of an earth elemental creates a fleeting tapestry of green—a lovely, tragic moment—and the insatiable swarm of tooth fairies (not what you think) is wondrously creepy. A sequence in a troll market gives del Toro the opportunity to indulge in appearances from all manner of mythical creatures, and the result is truly transporting: the kind of vibrant, imaginative universe that George Lucas wishes he could pull off.

But it’s not enough. The storytelling is that bad, so lackluster and obnoxious that it dulls even del Toro’s visual brilliance. To sum it up with all the emotional maturity of this dumb-ass flick, Hellboy II sucks. Hard.