Comic-book movies should be fun, right? This summer it’s been all too easy to forget. You can say what you like about the very dark Dark Knight or the less than incredible Incredible Hulk, but neither movie was exactly a barrel of laughs. Thank goodness, then, for Guillermo del Toro, who puts the comic back into comic book with his hugely entertaining Hellboy sequel.
Unlike the brooding superheroes played by Christian Bale and Edward Norton in Knight and Hulk, there’s nothing remotely anguished about Ron Perlman’s Hellboy. He may have satanic origins, he may have sawn-off horns, a pointy tail and a fist like a giant sledgehammer, he may even be bright red, but under the skin he’s just a regular bloke, a blue-collar guy who likes to kick back with a six pack of beer and re-runs of the Three Stooges on TV.
Del Toro likens him to “a plumber who comes in with a box of tools and says, ‘Where’s the leak?’ and goes at fixing the leak.” Of course, given that he works for the top secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, the leaks that Hellboy fixes seep out of the underworld rather than household pipes, and they tend to involve slug-fests with slimy, tentacle-waving monsters and leave more mess than the sloppiest of repairmen.
This time around, Hellboy and his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz and merman colleague Abe Sapien are up against an evil elf prince played by former boy band star Luke Goss. The ex-Bros bro’s Prince Nuada is a whey-faced blond with the pallor and dress sense of a Goth metal fan who doesn’t get out much, but he’s a kick-ass meanie who’s about to let all hell loose by breaking the ancient truce between the creatures of the underworld and humankind.
Of course, the plot is really just an excuse for del Toro to let his imagination run riot, conjuring up a fantastic array of creatures from a swarm of ravenous tooth fairies with piranha-like appetites to a drooling giant cave troll called Wink with whom Hellboy titanically dukes it out.
It’s all delirious, demented entertainment, yet I can’t help feeling a pang of disappointment all the same. As good as Hellboy II is, it doesn’t come close to del Toro’s masterpiece, the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth. Made in Spain for a fraction of the cost of Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth also features otherworldly monsters, but this time the Mexican director’s incredible flights of fantasy are grounded in a world of real pain and genuine tragedy.
As he did with his earlier film, the chilling ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro draws on Spain’s brutal 20th-century history to create a backdrop for his tale. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the setting is a remote part of northern Spain in 1944, five years after the ending of the country’s bitter civil war. It’s here that the stepdaughter of a vicious army captain moves back and forth between a real world of savage fighting between soldiers and rebels, and a fantasy world of strange and monstrous creatures. That both worlds are given equal weight, gives the movie a haunting power.
Del Toro’s big-budget Hollywood films are fun but forgettable; Pan’s Labyrinth will linger in the mind for years. I’m sure there will be a Hellboy III, but I’d much rather look forward to del Toro’s next trip to Spain.