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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Red vs. Blue: Hellboy II, the Golden Army

It's time, once again, to remind everyone that Guillermo del Toro did not direct King Arthur. And once again, I apologize profusely for even thinking such a thing.

I was put in an extremely good, pro-movie frame of mind at the outset, because we saw the trailer for Death Race (that link is, naturally, completely hellish, but it does have the trailer: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, and Ian Fucking McShane? Oh yes, I will be there.

It's possible that I was so caught up in, metaphorically, having just heard of a place where humans do battle in a ring of jell-o that my critical faculties were blunted during Golden Army. I absolutely enjoyed it, and I will stand by my immediate judgement that it continues the trend of solid superhero/comic book movies for the summer. However, M was quicker to bring up some of the flaws in the story line, and I can't really disagree with most of them, even though I think that almost every individual scene works pretty beautifully.

Oddly enough, given my dewy-eyed resistance to seeing anything wrong with the movie, I certainly thought the opening scene was a bit of a mixed bag. The opening scene, you understand, not the opening explanatory text, which ended with "He loves TV and candy" and was completely brilliant. I am all for the feeblest of excuses to have John Hurt in the movie, even though his character is technically dead (which is the best kind of dead), and the excuse isn't feeble in this case, as it concisely uses bedtime story as back story. (M, THE ZOMBIE KING, of all people, claims that John Hurt needs to find some bedtime stories that don't involve mutual slaughter. I say, "Where is your pod, spouse of mine?")

As Hurt narrates, the story of the war between humans and the "Children of the Earth" plays out in gorgeous fashion. It's wooden puppets filmed in stop motion, and it's the best of Burton and Harryhausen combined. So given the Hurt-y, puppet-y goodness, what am I complaining about? Young Hellboy, I'm afraid. I'm not sure if IMDB's crediting make-up artist Montse Ribé as playing him indicates that they've been hitting the funny brownies a little hard or what, but something unpleasant was going on: Whoever was under the make-up and prosthetic teeth clearly could not speak through it, and the overdubbing was slightly less skilled than that in Santa Claus. Don't you "Nooooo, Lupita!" me, people, it was that bad.

I can't think of anywhere else in the film where a technical cock-up compromises the visual deliciousness, but I must admit that there are times when the pretty is shiny to overcome shortcomings of the script, at least in the moment.

But there are good things about the script, too. The Red/Liz romance is in progress in this movie, and it's unfortunately a really difficult romance to depict with live actors. To del Toro's credit, the depiction of gay men on television (lots of meaningful hugs, kissing one another chastely on the forehead between the horns, you know what I'm talking about) hardly ever came to mind, partly because there's a fair amount of exposition, rather than depiction.

For example, the scene that opens the present-day action has Abe and Manning walking through the halls of the BPRD while a Liz/Red fight rages, drowning out the wailings and lamentations of the BPRD agents who can be glimpsed wrangling Cthulhoid monsters in various rooms as they stroll by. (Very Buffy/Spike/Rocket Launcher in "Him," and thus very much WIN.) The whole scene is visually great, and it covers a lot of expository ground with two characters who are, by nature, very talky. As good and skillful as that opening is, though, playing out the heart of the two romances in a drunk buddy cop scene set to a Manilow soundtrack is nothing short of genius. Most needful Manilow EVAR. (In general, the soundtrack is great, but as it contains Eels, I would say that, wouldn't I?)

Another good thing, at least in my opinion, about the structure of the script is del Toro's insistence on relying on his visuals as the strongest storytelling device at his disposal. In contrast to the seizure-inducing pace and editing of Transformers, for example, del Toro lingers when the take-home message of the scene requires lingering in a wonderfully non-American way. The best example I can think of is after Hellboy kills the forest god/elemental, and the streets, buildings, etc., are overrun with moss and beautifully blooming greenery, del Toro takes us and the characters on a walk through the scene, rather than rushing immediately into the crowd's backlash against the team.

I'll also argue that the overall tone of the script is remarkable in the balance it strikes between humor and horror, absurdity and gravity. More than anything, it reminded me of the Princess Bride. But, it's the PB with But Face. Hellboy II has an unfortunate tendency toward writing narrative checks that it can't cash, and it tends to write them in unfortunately grandiose dialogue that lends itself to sound bytery. You may recall from the trailer, for example, the elf prince declaring that he will call on all the children of the earth, "The good, the bad—and the worst!" Stirring, to be sure!

Unfortunately, by the time he utters this line, we've seen the back side of the tooth fairies, which are, admittedly, the perfect combination of creepy and cute. Assuming that the eponymous Golden Army comprise "the worst," the only other representatives of "the bad," seem to be one troll (but you have to give it up for a retractable projectile fist that [and it nigh kills me to say this] beats Green Arrow's boxing glove arrow all to hell) and the aforementioned elemental. So, a less than impressive showing.

I wouldn't say the script is exactly plagued with "why don't they look?" issues, but it's got something of an acne outbreak with them. Why does anyone, let alone a team of presumably experienced agents, think that going after miniature, arachnid flesh eaters that swarm with handguns is a good idea? And as much as we enjoy comic, legless Irish goblin manufacturers as much as the next people, are we really to believe that his guilt about making the damned army in the first place never moved him to try to dismantle the damned things? And believe me when I say when M is asking what happened to all the other elves, you've got storyline problems.

On a more serious and depressing note, the two female characters are so underused that it seems clear "female power" is a complete oxymoron here. Through the entire fight with the golden army, we were both itching for, you know, FIRE to enter into the equation, but not so much. And then the script underscores its own gender fail by having Liz melt the crown down. As for the big moment of Hellboy challenging the Prince, I understand that this is Red's barbecue, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Still, given that the princess is, you know, unambiguously of the royal blood that traditionally commanded the golden army, any little bit of dialogue explaining why she doesn't offer a challenge would've been welcome.

Having devoted the bulk of this to script nitpicking, I'd like to get back around to the fact that the whole movie is visually stunning from start to finish. Whether del Toro is waking the supernatural Irish landscape, deploying the slapstick in the locker routine, out-Mos Eisley-ing Mos Eisley, or scaring the bejeezus out of you with the angel of death, it's all oozing with style. As gorgeous as everything is, it's never just pretty for the sake of pretty. Every time a visual element draws attention to itself, it figures in the action: the mangle that eventually undoes Wink, the blue aura that the golden soldier takes on when Krauss inhabits it (in pointed contrast to the red red glow of the rest of the army), the goggles that allow the team to see things as they really are (revealing the shocking truth that Hellboy IS Carrot!).

In addition to being a sucker for (a) del Toro's considerable style, (b) Ron Perlman, (c) and Hellboy in general, I think I had patience with some of the script's clunking because it feels very much like the second movie in a trilogy. (Yes, yes, I know that kind of thinking led me into madness with PotC: Dead Man's Chest.) It feels like everyone involved is interested in building up to a story that really digs into Hellboy qua Hellboy, and there needed to be set up in this movie. Given that there needs to be a third movie, it's a relief to learn that no one's hanging up the horns until Ron Perlman's tired of playing Hellboy, and Ron Perlman shows no signs of any such thing.

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