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Critical Cinema
Feeble fairy tale


Guillermo del Toro has many of the qualities cherished by film critics: an audacious, singular aesthetic, a proclivity to serious, personal themes, and the skill to execute his vision. He has also moved back and forth adeptly between independent film and big studio projects. Given his record?including the fantastical Pan's Labyrinth and the delightful Hellboy with its blend of block-buster sensibility and sensitivity towards the deviant misfit?his latest offering could have been special. But sadly, with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, he has fallen woefully short.

For those of you who missed the first instalment, Hellboy is the literally diabolical hero?a red demon with horns and all, and one oversized sledgehammer fist?summoned to Earth to create Armageddon but rescued and adopted by a Professor Broom. He is then brought up to defend good under the auspices of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, a sort of X-Files department staffed by freaks. The story comes from the creative mind of comic book artist Mike Mignola, whose dark and grim vision is leavened with humour and humanity.

In the sequel, the baddies aren't infernal but fey?in a bad-ass way. Elfin Prince Nuada (Goss), resentful of the human destruction of Earth (yes, he's got a point) and the fall of his people?reflected in their present subterranean haunts?plans to break a centuries-old truce with mankind. His twin sister, Princess Nuala (Walton) turns to the BRDP to try to prevent him from raising the dreaded Golden Army, thousands of unstoppable killing machines.

The comic book, packed with pathos and existential dilemmas, should have been fertile ground for del Toro. Yet he manages to squander the affection we might have had for the characters from the first film by reducing their complexity and caricaturing them apparently for attempted comic effect.

First to fall victim is the relationship between Hellboy (Pearlman) and his flame, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Blair), which del Toro reduces to an unattractive bickering contest. Likewise, Hellboy ages differently from humans, raising questions about his maturity. This was previously a source of comedic tension, but is now simply a source of irritation, with his infantilism blown up to gargantuan proportions. And Hellboy's reliance on the Jack Bauer approach to investigation?hitting anyone he has to question?is made even dumber since most of the action is nonsensical.
The less said about the bizarre blue-skinned aquatic life-form, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), or the bodiless ectoplasmic Dr Krauss housed in a clunky deep-sea diving suit and voiced by Seth McFarlane, the better.

Del Toro's much vaunted sense of the fantastical and macabre is sorely bruised by Hellboy II. Rather than wowing his audience, whole swathes of the movie have been recycled from old cloth, either from his previous work or cheaply derived from others'. A potentially phantasmagoric scene in the underground trolls' market beneath the Brooklyn Bridge is instead a damp squib more akin to Star Wars.

The engine that drives the plot splutters along without any apparent internal logic or character development. The humour falls flat and the dialogue feels awkward. If the sets and costumes are pretty, they only serve as a reminder of what del Toro has achieved in the past. Skip this one, treat yourself to one of his previous offerings, and hope that he comes up trumps with The Hobbit a few years down the line.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Pearlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss,
Anna Walton
2008. PG-13. 110 mins.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)