Hellboy fights for good, and screen time

Posted: July 11, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army begins with a bedtime story. It's Christmas Eve 1955, and little Red - a horned, tailed devil-child spawned by the Nazis, and now living in New Mexico with his bearded, benevolent professor surrogate dad - is getting the lowdown on a mythical kingdom and its invincible robotic fighting force.

The boy, with the skin tone of a Red Hot, wears cute pj's, watches Howdy Doody on TV, and has a goofy, toothy grin. Quite a few years later - like around now - Hellboy is a hulking, cranky grown-up, played by Ron Perlman and a barn of scarlet-patinaed prosthetics. But the teachings of Professor Broom (John Hurt) and the talk about Santa have stuck, because Hellboy is fighting for the good guys.

And that yarn about the invincible robots? Uh-oh, it's true. A fellow with flowing white locks and a pasty David Bowie face - an exiled prince from someplace called Bethmoora - has set loose the very same Golden Army on the streets of New York.

A hyperactive sequel to the 2004 hit, based on Mike Mignola's comic books and once again directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Hellboy II: The Golden Army goes somewhere the first Hellboy never ventured: into the Realms of Tedium.

Unleashing every creature he designed for his Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth - and trying out a few more that he'll probably bring to his announced two-picture adaptation of The Hobbit - Del Toro crams the screen with winged, tentacled beasts, with teeny, demonic critters, behemoth stone monsters, and multi-orbed, mushroom-headed wraiths.

But for all its eye-popping, Middle Earth-meets-Mos Eisley majesty - its mix of Heironymus Bosch, Jules Verne and George Lucas - Hellboy II is a letdown. For one thing, the stogie-chompin' star of the show feels like a guest at his own party, shoved aside to make room for Del Toro's macabre menagerie, and for Red's fellow freakazoids in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. (The BPRD, based in Trenton, is a clandestine government operation where super-powered weirdos hang out awaiting the call to save humankind.)

Perlman manages to toss off a few wiseguy asides - and there's serious relationship business going on between Red and his pyro-kinetic girlfriend Liz (the heavy-lidded Selma Blair). But with aquatic psychic dude Abe Sapien and the new, goggle-headed mystic Johann Kraus, not to mention the naggy bureaucratic boss, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), Mr. Hellboy hardly has room onscreen. And then there's that goth maniac Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) and his twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) - and you know they're twins because they share hair stylists, and experience simultaneous nosebleeds. One or the other is forever hanging around.

Hellboy II is not without its moments of twisted, pop-cult mirth. A Barry Manilow tune figures prominently, and Jimmy Kimmel shows up on TV. The Mexican filmmaker pays homage to The Bride of Frankenstein, and to The Wizard of Oz, and Frank Oz, too (Del Toro must have owned a VHS copy of The Dark Crystal).

But the level of mayhem is ratcheted up so high that it doesn't matter whether you're on the streets of Manhattan, the hills of Scotland, or the caverns of Bethmoora - all places Hellboy II takes you. Ultimately, the spectacle of computer-generated baddies battling computer-generated goodies - no matter how amazingly weird and wonderful they appear - wears you down.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. With Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, Jeffrey Tambor and Anna Walton. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, mayhem, scary monsters, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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