Near the midpoint of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the titular demon is asked by his all-too-human girlfriend, “Do you need everyone to love you? Or am I enough?” The original Hellboy, which director Guillermo del Toro launched on an unsuspecting public in 2004, felt as though it would have been content with the latter option--the unconditional affection of comic-book and fantasy-film geeks, the ironic indie crowd, and an eclectic bag of viewers eager for something just a little different. This summer’s sequel, by contrast, feels as though it wants to be loved by everyone-- action aficionados, tragic-romance junkies, fans of slapstick and potty humor, the summer masses. While not a bad movie, it’s one that suffers from acute sequelitis: a little too much of everything crammed together haphazardly.
The original film introduced us to Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a gruff, scarlet-hued demon with a steroidal physique and a fist like a hockey mitt, who was adopted and raised to adulthood (though hardly maturity) by one Professor Broom (John Hurt). Along with their colleagues--Hellboy’s pyrokinetic “flame” Liz (Selma Blair) and an empathic fishman named Abe Sapiens (Doug Jones)--the two toiled for the top-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). Its mission: to keep an eye out for things that go bump in the night and, when necessary, bump back.
A few things have changed since then: Broom is gone, as is romantic foil Agent Myers, banished to Antarctica for having gotten between Liz and Hellboy (or “Red” as he’s known to his friends and to Toys ‘R’ Us customers.) Red and Liz are now a semi-settled couple, although their typical issues--he doesn’t like her touching his stuff; she wishes he’d leave less of it lying around--tend to be resolved with more than the typical fireworks.
From this setup, the film follows its predecessor’s narrative arc with flow-chart precision: A flashback to Hellboy’s youth; the arrival of an ancient evil (a dark elvish prince played by Luke Goss); the murderous theft of a precious relic; the battles with a series of misshapen baddies in the streets of New York; the invasion, with tragic consequences, of the heroes’ secret Newark headquarters (what’s the point of hiding in Newark if you’re always found anyway?); and the final confrontation, in an immense European crypt, to prevent another unfolding Apocalypse.
Yet at every step, Hellboy tries a little too hard. In the first film, Jeffrey Tambor gave a characteristically on-key performance as The Whiny Bureaucratic Tool Who Turns Out to Be OK in the End; though Tambor returns in the sequel, his role is largely usurped by new BPRD member “Johann Krauss,” a pompous wisp of ectoplasmic fog in a deep-sea suit, voiced in a cartoon-German accent by “Family Guy”’s Seth McFarlane. Last time out, Hellboy fought a seeping monstrosity while holding a crate of kittens in one hand (cute); this time, he does so while cradling a human baby (borderline perverse). The funniest sequence in the original had Hellboy asking a nine-year-old boy for relationship advice; the funniest in the sequel (though not nearly as funny as it imagines itself to be) has a lovelorn Red and Abe downing six-packs of Tecate and belting out Barry Manilow.
There is, however, one area in which Hellboy II’s assumption that “more is more” is proven correct, and it’s not a small one. Del Toro, who has exercised his eye for the fantastic in films ranging from Blade II to Pan’s Labyrinth, gives it glorious free range here: Tiny, calcium-chewing “tooth fairies” flutter about like winged, carnivorous Pac-Men; five thousand mechanical golems rise like an army of gold pocket watches; a towering green elemental squirms like an angry Ent through lower Manhattan. In one scene, set in an underground Troll Market, del Toro’s creature creations are so abundant he’s barely able to squeeze them all into the frame.
In the end, Hellboy II, though not as keenly conceived or nimbly executed as its predecessor, is still likable entertainment. Ron Perlman is once again terrific in the lead role, even if his noble savage occasionally gets lost in the escalating mayhem. And del Toro, who has always set a lavish table, offers the most extravagant visual feast of his career. There is a moment, after Hellboy has defeated the majestic elemental, when its corpse blooms into a verdant afterlife, at once a hint of renewal and a reminder of a mystical world withering away. “It’s beautiful,” marvels Abe. He’s right.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.
By Christoper Orr