LAFF 2008: Hell to the Yeah

LAFF 2008: Hell to the Yeah

I guess LAFF doesn’t want me to talk about how the premieres go, since my tickets for them have ended up being in overflow houses far away from the actual red carpet and celebrities, so if you want to know what Guillermo del Toro may or may not have said to introduce HELLBOY II, I can’t help you. I did hear that LOOT won the documentary award.

I had a higher-profile friend who was going to give me his extra ticket to the big main theater, but then the big main theater turned out not to be the one advertised in the program. The Crest, which was to have done those honors, became overflow house #1. I was assigned to overflow house #2, the Regent, which really isn’t where you want to see a movie like HELLBOY II. Especially since the movie kept drifting in and out of focus, which was annoying as hell.

Could I have complained about it? It would have been hard in a packed house with me in the middle of the row. Yet audiences are sheep, and I’ve seen this happen before, where no-one on the aisle will go complain, and those of us who would are trapped.

Despite this crappery, HELLBOY II won me over with one very specific scene that I’ll talk about in a little bit. But mainly what you need to know is that this sequel follows pretty much the same beats as the first movie: flashback/origin, Hellboy and Abe checking out a museum and fighting monsters therein, monster battle under the streets of New York, fight with a big monster that springs from a tiny egg, villain who infiltrates the good-guy headquarters and does damage, and finally a journey to a far off place where villain is planning to resurrect ultimate evil.

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Do you need to brush up on the original? If you don’t remember what “Anung Un Rama” means and signifies, then yes.

The opening sequence of the movie is needless yet gleefully absurd: in a blatant attempt to shoohorn John Hurt’s deceased Professor Broom back into the story, we see him and Hellboy in 1955, with Hellboy a typical 11 year-old save for his big horns and hand. This is maybe a little contradictory – the first movie implied that, despite being in his sixties, Hellboy still acted adolescent because demon years are different, yet here he seems like he was a fully developed 11 year-old at, well, eleven. At any rate, Broom reads Hellboy a bedtime story, which we see enacted by CGI wooden dolls, that establishes what the plot of the movie will be – an indestructible army commissioned by elves and mythical creatures once laid waste to humanity, but was then buried (in Northern Ireland near Belfast, ironically enough) after a peace treaty was signed. The only way to revive said army is by the reconstruction of a golden crown, whose parts are divided between humans and elves.

Enter the present day, and one very pissed-off elf named Prince Nuada (pronounced Nu-WAD-da), who’s like an evil Legolas after a 6-day meth binge, and so fast that he can slice a raindrop in half with his sword. He’s played by Luke Goss, who was also the main Reaver in BLADE II (alongside Ron Perlman), and a surprising choice for badassitude considering his past…

One of his hit singles back in the day, “Drop the Boy,” featured the line “No more fights or plastic models.” So here he is fighting non-stop, and plastic models of his character are in toy stores everywhere. And speaking of which, if you doubt that we can still be an absurdly hypersensitive culture, Toys R Us wouldn’t allow the action figures for this movie on shelves if the word “Hell” appeared on the package, so the toys are simply labeled “HBII,” with the lead character being called “Red” for the purposes of marketing to kids.

Nuada isn’t content with the fact that supernatural beings are consigned to secret dark corners of the human world, and is determined to reactivate the Golden Army, with the aid of a big hippo-faced ogre named Mr. Wink, who has a projectile launching ball-and-chain fist straight out of an ’80s toy line.

Meanwhile, Hellboy (Perlman) is dealing with relationship growing pains, which are tougher than the usual since his main squeeze Liz (Selma Blair) bursts into flames whenever the PMS kicks in. Hellboy is flame-proof, but his 8-track collection isn’t. “I would give my life for her, but she also wants me to do the dishes!” he exclaims in disgust. Dude, doesn’t the government provide dishwashers?

Brief aside to Selma Blair – why doesn’t your action figure look like you? I’m guessing you wouldn’t sign off on your likeness. Afraid of what sex-starved fanboys would do with them? You should be. But they’re gonna pretend it’s you anyway…

Back on board also is fish-man Abe Sapien, who’s not only played by Doug Jones this time, but also voiced by him, very similarly to the way David Hyde-Pierce did in the first film, but noticeably different too. Agent Myers has been dismissed to Alaska, and in his place we get some cannon-fodder; this time around, being a regular human agent on a mission with Hellboy and Abe is like putting on a red shirt to beam down with Captain Kirk.

And the there’s Krauss, a being made entirely of gas, who usually resides inside a diving suit. The character isn’t bad, but the casting is the one place where the movie missteps. Originally set to be voiced by actual German Thomas Kretschmann, Krauss is now voiced in over-the-top fashion by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane. In other words, “comedy German,” which usually bugs the crap out of me. A large percentage of Americans never seem to have met any actual Germans, so when doing a fake accent thereof, it either comes out as stereotypical Nazi, “Hans and Franz” fake Schwarzenegger, or effeminate Mel Brooks character; MacFarlane is closest to this last option, and it just feels too overplayed. One thing I’ve long noticed about directors whose first language isn’t English – they don’t notice the distinctions in accented English so much, which may explain why del Toro went for absurd exaggeration here. I would rather have had Kretschmann, but don’t cry for Tom – he is in WANTED, after all.

And if you like monsters, the movie has ‘em in spades. It’s a bit like a MEN IN BLACK movie starring Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, with a guy whose head is a toy castle, a team of Silent Hill-style Pyramid Heads, and of course the conjoined ogre child who utters the soon-to-be-immortal line, “I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor!” Del Toro himself is credited with all additional monster grunts and noises.

The director’s ability to play this weirdness as the most natural thing in the world – while simultaneously aping some of Mike Mignola’s drawings verrry closely -- is the key factor that makes everything work here, and the moment I knew the movie was gold was when a lovelorn Hellboy and Abe (who falls for Nuada’s nicer sister, Nuala, in sequences that feel uncomfortably like C-3PO trying to seduce Princess Leia) get drunk on Tecate Light and start singing Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” together. Perhaps not coincidentally, the one time I ran into Ron Perlman in L.A. was at a karaoke bar; the man has talent in this area.

Del Toro’s fascination for all things clockwork is still hugely evident, and made me wish that instead of his upcoming involvement with all things Tolkien, he’d turn his attention to L. Frank Baum – the Oz books have still not been correctly adapted onscreen, and I know he’d have a field day with characters like TikTok, Scraps, the Glass Cat, and the Ork.

If I may fault him for something more minor than the MacFarlane casting, it’s that the X-MEN-like theme of Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X philosophy is brought up only to be rather swiftly discarded. Nuada makes a pitch to Hellboy to side with supernatural creatures against the humans, but he doesn’t make it seem in any way appealing because he’s such a prick that even his twin sister hates him. You know how some villains are likable? He isn’t; even those who never heard Goss’ crappy ‘80s music won’t shed any tears when Hellboy takes him on.

Inevitably, there’s a set-up for a sequel, that del Toro has said he’ll make provided he’s guaranteed it will be the last one; thanks to a dire prophecy from the Angel of Death (also played by Jones), we have a very interesting tease of what may be forthcoming. I’ll be glad to see it as a trilogy; in a summer of billionaires with robot suits and nerdy scientists with rage issues, somehow the red-skinned demon who drinks beer in the shower is the big screen superhero I can relate to the most.

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