By Andrew Tracy
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Dir. Guillermo del Toro, U.S., Universal
Talking faux-seriously about juvenilia has become a marvelous way to avoid talking seriously about the serious. The slew of hyperbolic, overheated critical rhetoric that follows in the wake—hell, in advance— of the latest high concept blockbuster is enough to make one gag. In these cases, critical investigation has by and large become a matter of repeating verbatim the films’ stridently announced surface-level themes with some linguistic curlicues and intellectual tumbling tossed in. As it has so often, commercial calculation finds a willing handmaiden in critical laziness, even (or perhaps especially) that evinced by those more intelligent and discerning writers who devote their efforts and talents towards designing elaborate intellectual justifications for films that neither require nor deserve them.
What’s most obscene about this pop-cultural mythmaking is that it works so resolutely against expanding taste or knowledge about movies. By focusing so obsessively and voluminously on the most readily, tyrannically available items, critical discussion is not simply reflecting the commercial film distribution situation in North America, but actively contributing to it. By elevating the latest pop detritus to the level of godhead, by implicitly declaring the centrality of pop moviemaking (most often bad pop moviemaking) above all else, it only further occludes those films that don’t have the advantage of being relentlessly drilled into our consciousness by the marketing machine. Why bother wrestling in print with films that are challenging, strange, obscure, or entertaining in different and novel ways when The Truth is playing in 2500 theatres?
All of which is a grand lead-up to the comparatively puny declaration that Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II is a lousy piece of moviemaking and a lousier work of imagination, its thunderous acclamation aside. “Visionary” is the least of the plaudits being tossed del Toro’s way, and I won’t waste time tabulating the absurdities which honest-to-God professional critics have foisted upon the thing (though Dana Stevens deserves especial singling out: “Del Toro has started to look like a legitimate successor to Ovid”). The content of all this praise isn’t as important as its volume, which indicates the unspoken complicity forged between critics and aesthetic opportunists like del Toro. Moving back and forth between “art” (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) and “entertainment” (Blade II, Hellboy, etc.), del Toro brings the comforting narrative/aesthetic conventionality of the mainstream to the former and an aura of faux-highbrow classiness to the latter, a neat trick of ideological positioning which allows him to steer clear of mere horror-movie niche fame while avoiding blending in with the faceless stable of H’wood pros. Taking wing on del Toro’s counterfeit cultural capital, critics can embroider the grandest of narratives on his over-busy interior design and latex creatures—HB2 is apparently, as the Greencine critical round-up duly records, “baroque,” “splendiferously imagined,” “poetic,” “darkly romantic,” “mythic,” (that much-abused word)—while staying reassuringly within the faux-populist language of the commercial: “rock ‘em, sock ‘em good time,” “just a great storyteller delivering a good time at the movies.” And thus those lonely (if not brave) souls who dissent can be written off as either inadequate aesthetes or prissy fusspots who’ve forgotten how to have Fun©.
As is usually the case with such things, the critical response is more interesting (and infuriating) than the movie itself. Yet HB2 does have its share of autonomous annoyances, enough to shame those who declare it “pure cinema” into penitent silence if they even knew what they were talking about when they used the term. As in the dimly remembered first installment of Hellboy, wherein we first met our government-employed paranormal team of the titular horned hero (Ron Perlman, an amusing saving grace in the first installment whose limited shtick here runs dry), firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and the cultured, eloquent fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), the most immediately noticeable element is the plodding flatness of del Toro’s dialogue (proud, sole screenplay credit here) and, even more damagingly, his incurably ham-handed direction of that dialogue. It would appear that all scenes involving purely human actors rather than CGI beasties or latex-suited (and easily over-dubbed) stars were printed off the first take. Deprived of cosmetic disguise, Blair suffers disproportionately, particularly in an embarrassing monologue to a hostile New York crowd that has suddenly turned on Our Hero, but it’s nothing compared to Jeffrey Tambor’s truly bewildering performance as the team’s perpetually distressed G-man keeper, which, one hopes, is an intentional joke gone awry from moment one.
Post-Pan, del Toro’s license to expand his canvas with “troll markets” beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and gigantic underground chambers has only given his humdrum, journeyman semi-competence greater room in which to display itself. Apart from a modestly creative opening gambit—wherein the backstory of the titular subterranean mechanized army and the elfen Prince Nuada’s (Luke Goss) determination to revive them for a war of annihilation against humanity is enacted by puppets in the imagination of a ten-year-old, Howdy Doody–loving Hellboy—del Toro demonstrates the common studio-director inability to orchestrate anything other than a close-up. Scenes start and end with lumbering abruptness, characters most often introduced by walking in suddenly from left or right, with no reference to where they’re coming from or where they’re going; witness the sudden appearance of a legless troll on an Irish cliffside, or the unintentional running joke of Hellboy & Co.’s black-suited human confederates at team headquarters, who continually mill about in the background of scenes with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
As to the requisite action scenes, they’re either boringly familiar, as in Nuada’s standard-issue HK acrobatics, or idiotically distended in order to display the labors of the surely numerous effects houses. When besieged by a few thousand tiny, flying carnivores, del Toro has our heroes fire at them with pistols for about five minutes before Liz remembers that she can turn into fire and fry them all. In the final showdown, Hellboy and the team’s (literally) gaseous superior Johan Krauss (voiced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, of all people) spend several dull minutes trouncing the Golden Army—while Liz and Abe stand stock-still, del Toro evidently not knowing what to do with them in the interim—before the machines resurrect themselves and then sit off to the side so that Hellboy and Nuada can square off mano a mano.
Lest these purely logistical (as in absolutely essential) matters seem trivial, let’s up the ante. Greater than his inability to work his way through a scene, del Toro demonstrates precious little fluidity on a diegetic level. The subterranean world of elves, trolls, and what-have-yous has no connection with the “real” world aboveground, the link which Hellboy is supposed to provide with his cigar-chewing and beer-drinking. Even downmarket trash like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser—whose legion of lumpen, maggoty-white, eyeless and prominently toothed creatures bear more than a passing resemblance to del Toro’s “visionary” creations—has a better sense of how the normal and fantasy worlds interact. Like his fellow Hollywood hacks, del Toro thinks only in terms of setpieces rather than “fully realized worlds.” HB’s entrance into the full glare of media publicity—including, in an indication of the film’s budget level, the Jimmy Kimmel Show—after plunging into the middle of a crowded New York street bypasses any effort to depict a world making sense of a government-employed Satan-spawn; it simply serves as an excuse for a few unfunny jokes (“Hey Hellboy, you’re ugly!” bellows some beer-drinking white trash on the street) and some sub-X-Men soul-searching about the plight of “freaks” and our hero’s conflicted fealty to a seemingly uncaring human world.
What’s crucial to recognize in all this is not that HB2 is an especially dreadful movie, but that there’s nothing special about it one way or another. Del Toro is no more and no less than any other big-budget Hollywood pro, whatever Time magazine has to say (“the wildest imagination and grandest ambitions of anybody in modern movies,” in case any were wondering). Correspondingly, all the faux-serious talk about HB2 is merely an amped-up version of the intensive scrutiny granted every big Hollywood movie, which then promptly falls away to clear the decks for next week’s offering. These movies, and the writing about them, are not built to last; they’re built to grease the wheels of the studio conveyor belt and whet the appetite for the equally disposable “masterpieces” to come (Hobbit on the horizon, as everyone knows). We’re all cogs in that machine, God knows, even negative takes like this one—but need we be such happy and willing cogs?