A modest improvement over the imaginative but uninspired first film, the "Hellboy" sequel marks the closest director Guillermo del Toro has gotten to delivering an American mainstream studio film at the quality level of his lower budget but far more captivating Spanish-language efforts like "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone".
Yet while the production design, creatures and many visuals benefit greatly from del Toro's unabashed imagination being allowed to run free, the script is even more enslaved to the mechanically cobbled together conventions of everyday Summer blockbusters. A thin and predictable plot of a wronged prince declaring war on humanity combined with some fun but trite soap opera-esque subplots of the three main characters (one's pregnant, one's in love, one's feeling ostracized) make the rounds between the well-filmed but dragged out and often perfunctory action sequences. Ultimately it all seems very slapdash and even further away from the dark, primal and richly textured source material that inspired the films.
Despite the somewhat bland base, the filler this time is more delectable. Armed with more money and confidence, this is a more assured and - despite all the fantastical elements - a more humanistic film with a very comfortable grip on its characters and their inter-relationships. Ditching the useless rookie character from the first film, the focus this time is on the 'freaks' which is where it should be. It's knowingly cheesy at times, highlighted by a drunken sing-a-long Barry Manilow moment with Abe & Hellboy, but the director is so unabashedly in love with these characters that it can't help but be endearing and infectious.
Who can blame him either as Ron Perlman once again delivers pitch-perfect work as the roguish, red-skinned demon with a heart of gold. Despite the many layers and hours of make-up, it's pretty obvious the actor is having a ball and so he plays up the various character traits to pitch perfect levels. The other performances are fine but not as compelling - Selma Blair's Liz does an almost about face this time around with a confident and strong action heroine routine, whilst Doug Jones' amphibious Abe Sapien sadly becomes a rather dull and stuffy mouthpiece for assorted exposition. Jeffrey Tambor has a better written routine as the BPRD's long-suffering bureaucratic head, whilst "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane understands his comic relief role as the German ectoplasmic mystic Johan Krauss and milks it for all its worth with the film's better comedy moments.
Whilst there's moments of fun with this team, and plenty of time to gaze in wonder at the sheer majesty and inventiveness of all the creature creations on screen (the multi-eyed 'Angel of Death' in particular is stunning, the troll market scene less so), we must reluctantly carry on with the threadbare story which tries to be more mythical by being simpler than the first film's fumbled but smoother flowing plot. Unlike the first film there's little personal cost to our heroes here, short of a very forced and unconvincing blossoming romance between Abe and an elven princess.
Seems her brother, Prince Nuada, is determined to reclaim the Earth from humanity using a now sealed off unstoppable mechanical army that Hellboy learned about as a youngster when his father (John Hurt in a welcome cameo) tells him the fable - one brilliantly played out with stop-motion animation. That's about it, the Prince (Luke Goss) spends the film either reluctantly carrying out his desire for genocide or jumping about with wire-fu acrobatic fight maneuvers to drag out time. The film's macguffin, three pieces of a crown that controls said army, reeks of unoriginality while a very obvious Achilles Heel comes into play long after any logical sense of its use.
The FX, though often quite CG looking, are clever and creative enough to make some predictable action interesting. A fight with a plant god in the middle of an intersection comes to an inspired end, likewise a 'tooth fairy' attack is effectively fast and brutal. The titular army however, though of cool design, are a bit of a letdown. In quite a few ways the film is too - without its rich visuals and atmosphere there's not a hell of a lot separating it from the other routine fare at this time of year.
'Golden Army' certainly takes a step in the right direction with this franchise, but it needs to go further and spend as much time developing a compelling and richer story as it does on populating its environs with fantastical beings. Hopefully there'll be a third film, the characters and del Toro certainly deserve it, and if it can improve again as it did here - then a truly great film lies waiting in the not-so-distant future.