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Big Red

Hellboy II is a visual marvel, but not as involving the second time around.

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Other than perhaps the X-Men series, director Guillermo del Toro's 2004 Hellboy launched the most human and easily comic of the current super-hero film franchises.

Based on Mike Mignola's cult comic book, the Hellboy series follows the exploits of the literal spawn of Satan, first seen as a toddler who emerges when Nazis briefly open a portal to the underworld in the waning days of WWII. Hellboy (dubbed "Red" and played by Ron Perlman as an adult) is taken in by the U.S. Army and raised (on TV and junk food, as Hellboy II's flashback prelude reveals) by British occultist Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt). All grown up, he's a cigar-chomping, barrel-chested, red-skinned demon-hero — the feature attraction of the U.S. government's secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.

Del Toro's first foray into this material ended on an ecstatic note that the current sequel — Hellboy II: The Golden Army — is never able to match: a final (and initial) blue-flame kiss that engulfs Red and his newfound paranormal paramour, depressive pyrokinetic Liz (played by an agreeably glum Selma Blair). That Liz's once-blue flames have morphed — without explanation — into a more mundane orange is perhaps too appropriate.

In the years between the two Hellboy movies, del Toro has made the transition from underrated B-movie ace to first-tier cinematic artist on the strength of his magnificent 2006 adult fairy tale, Pan's Labyrinth. Visually, that film informs Hellboy II even more than the first Hellboy installment, several of the new film's eye-popping creatures seeming to be alternate takes on imagery from Pan's Labyrinth. But Hellboy II withdraws from the emotional growth curve del Toro's films have been on. There's not much at stake here. (Well, besides the future of the planet and the fate of the human race.) Tonally, Hellboy II seems more akin to Men in Black than to its del Toro precursors — more clever and inventive than emotionally engaging, despite a second paranormal love story and a pregnancy subplot.

This time out, the plot-generating prelude takes place on an Army base in 1955, as an adolescent Hellboy is read a bedtime story by Bruttenholm, a story rooted in "myths" about an ancient war between humans and banished species (elves, ogres, and goblins) that will form the core of the film's present-day conflict. Flash-forward to modern Manhattan, where underworld heir Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) has re-emerged at an antiquities auction to claim a piece of an ancient crown that could give him the power to reform the fierce "golden army" of legend and bring the fight back to the human race.

There's an attempt here at a Star Wars-esque motivational underpinning about Hellboy choosing between Prince Nuada's underworld and a human public that scorns him. ("The humans, they will tire of you. Leave them," Nuada implores Red.) But this never develops much suspense or anxiety. (Though del Toro does use this nuance to drum up some sympathy for the film's would-be villains as endangered species: "We die, and the world will be poorer for it," the Prince asserts.)

Ultimately, Hellboy II comes across as not much more than a vehicle for del Toro's personal flourishes (Red watches Bride of Frankenstein and swills Tecate in the shower) and his simultaneously grubby and grandiose fantasy creations. And it works quite well just on those terms. This film introduces a horde of blue, gremlin-like tooth fairies ("They're cute," a government agent exclaims) who don't take teeth from under your pillow but devour them straight from your mouth. And they don't leave behind money, but only their own feces. There's also a hidden troll market under the Brooklyn Bridge and a gigantic, green, flowering plant monster that stalks the Manhattan streets.

Too often in Hellboy II, del Toro pulls the viewer into his fantasy world instead of letting that fantasy world infiltrate our own, as was the case with the first Hellboy film. But it's a worthwhile place to visit regardless.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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