Hellboy 2 Stands Out in a Weak Summer for Movies

In a disappointing movie summer, two critically acclaimed popcorn directors stand out. The summer movie season officially kicked off with a flick by the master himself, Steven Spielberg's only modestly entertaining addition to the Indiana Jones series. We had to wait two more months for a really satisfying action flick, but Guillermo Del Toro delivered it, with the sequel to his underappreciated Hellboy. Other than WALL-E, there haven't been many instant classics this summer, but Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is a movie I'll be happy to watch over and over again. It's visually stunning, full of easy camaraderie, one-liners that range from crackling to groaning, kickass action, and it's yet another one of those nerdy comic book movies that are all the rage nowadays. All in all, it's pretty great.

It has a different feel than the last one. Whereas the first Hellboy was all Nazis and demons and Satanic minions, this one's about pissed-off forest gods and nymphs and fairies. Del Toro is still fascinated by the tenuous line between reality and fantasy, as he was in Pan's Labyrinth, but this time it's much less scary and much more fun. He gets his ookies out of the way early, with nasty little bitey things that are adorably revolting, and whose screen time is thankfully brief. The bad guy is truly sinister, but his supporting cast is less infernal and more natural, less red and black and more green and brown, less pulsating and more hulking.

The plot is revealed in an opening animated puppet sequence that looks like something out of Tim Burton. A long time, it turns out ago humans and elf/fairy/magical creature types fought a war. Goblins built an invincible golden army, which slaughtered the humans so badly the magicals were shamed into a truce. Now some of them want out, led by a pale-faced scarred guy with a telescoping spear and a really bad temper, who's trying to find his twin sister to reassemble a magical crown that will allow him to resummon the golden army and finish off humanity.

The team from the first movie expands and is given more to do. The relationship drama deepens between Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his girlfriend, firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and their character development is one of the movie's quieter victories, the sign of a real storyteller at work. (Movies have long been starved for women who kick ass; Blair's a great addition to a too-small canon.) Merman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, taking over for David Hyde Pierce's voicework in the first movie) falls in love with the bad guy's twin sister and confesses his ardor to Hellboy, who's love-struck with Liz, in a hilariously poignant scene with a 24-pack of Tecate. A new addition, ectoplasmic apparition Johann Krauss (Seth Macfarlane, who somehow isn't terrible), is a good-guy riff on the last movie's evil reanimated Nazi henchman. A lot of the last movie's fun came from the chemistry of the leads, and it continues here.

The action scenes are truly satisfying. A clash between Hellboy and the bad guy's goon is everything the Hulk-on-Hulk battle from The Incredible Hulk should have been earlier this summer, brutal, long-lasting, and deeply satisfying. The final confrontation with the Golden Army, and Hellboy's mano a mano with the bad guy himself, are even better. The filmmakers clearly spent their budget in these scenes, when midrange shots fill the screen with countless moving parts and let the audience follow precisely what's going on, rather than the shakycam extreme close-ups that many lesser directors use as a crutch. (Bourne director Paul Greengrass is about the only person in the world who can pull these off successfully.)

And the greatest star is Del Toro. Like Peter Jackson, he's a big-budget filmmaker with a low-budget horror heart, who loves monsters and gore by the bucketful, and is equally comfortable with CGI and with handmade effects like miniatures and makeup. He even has the trademark paunch and beard of his Kiwi counterpart. Most importantly, though, he has a masterful grasp of story and character, coaxes great performances out of his actors, fluently flows between genres, and makes movies that are a lot of fun. (Even Blade II.) And he's still getting better.

I can't wait till Hellboy 3.