Filmmakers with a distinctive vision can generally be divided into two camps: those primarily concerned with human behavior and those obsessed with the properties of cinema itself. Towering figures like Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese fit both profiles. But Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, uniquely, fits neither—he may be the only director in the world who’s managed to create a notable body of work predicated almost entirely on creature design. Even his two Spanish Civil War allegories, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, derive most of their power from creepy nightmare visions—a deformed fetus floating in formaldehyde; a sleeping monster with eyes in the palms of its hands—rather than from any political subtext. Consequently, Hellboy II: The Golden Army seems like the purest distillation of del Toro’s sensibility, even though it was conceived and co-written with Mike Mignola, creator of the Hellboy comic-book series. The sense of a little boy forever changed by the famous cantina scene in Star Wars is unmistakable.
When last we left our stogie-sucking demon hero (Ron Perlman) and his equally freakish buddies at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense ... well, I can’t even remember what happened in the first movie, to be honest. That’s part of my problem with del Toro’s films: The surface details are beguiling, but everything else tends to be somewhat amorphous. At any rate, this time Hellboy must contend with an angry prince (Luke Goss) belonging to an ancient race of chalk-white people living deep underground. Long ago, we learn in a remarkable puppet-based prologue, this other race, after centuries of warfare, formed a truce with humanity—one that Prince Nuada no longer intends to honor. Thing is, though, in order to wreak maximum havoc, Nuada needs to get hold of all three pieces of a magical crown that will allow the bearer to command the titular golden army—a cadre of clockwork assassins currently lying dormant. And one piece is on Earth’s surface, which means locking sawed-off horns with mankind’s protector.
From the first big set piece, in which Hellboy, quizzical fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and pyrokinetic hottie Liz (Selma Blair) are attacked by a swarm of tiny flying sharp-toothed beasties, The Golden Army rarely pauses for breath, throwing outlandish monsters at the screen at a truly dizzying rate. Still, del Toro may be running out of ideas—here, we get another creature with its eyes in its appendages, only this time it’s wings instead of hands. Various other behemoths look nifty for a few seconds but are no more substantial or genuinely menacing than was the CGI Hulk. And pouty Prince Nuada, I’m afraid, is a major bust as the primary villain, generally looking as if he made a wrong turn en route to the hair-band reunion tour.
That leaves Perlman to liven things up with his irascible big-lug charm, and he does have a few hilariously spiky moments—though I could have lived without Hellboy and Abe performing a drunken duet of Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You.” Also intermittently amusing is the newest addition to the team, Johann Kraus, an ectoplasmic entity (though that’s never really explained onscreen) who resides in a clunky mechanical suit and speaks in a thick, obnoxiously authoritative German accent, courtesy of Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane. But these still aren’t so much characters as they are three-dimensional sketches lifted from the margins of a bored teenager’s math textbook. Peter Jackson, who’s decided not to direct the forthcoming Hobbit movies, recently gave the job to del Toro, but that seems like something of a mixed blessing from his perspective. After all, we already know what Gollum looks like.