Throughout his career, Guillermo del Toro has regularly alternated between small, personal projects and big studio pictures. He followed his debut feature 'Cronos' (a strange, intimate twist on vampire mythology) with the horror thriller 'Mimic'. From there, he traveled to Spain for 'The Devil's Backbone' and then returned to Hollywood for 'Blade II'. The director's obsessions with dark fairy tales, fantastical monsters, and clockwork mechanical gizmos were a perfect fit for Mike Mignola's cult comic book about a grumpy demon hellspawn with a fondness for candy bars and big guns. The 2004 film adaptation of 'Hellboy' was witty, inventive, action-packed, and very entertaining. Unfortunately, the studio (Sony) found it difficult to market a movie in which the hero basically looks like the bastard son of Satan. The picture did only mediocre box office business, but found more of an audience on DVD. Cut to a few years later and del Toro was riding high on the success of 'Pan's Labyrinth'. A new studio (Universal) decided to pick up the 'Hellboy' rights and capitalize on the director's ascending fortunes, tailoring the promotional campaign for 'Hellboy II: The Golden Army' almost exclusively around Guillermo del Toro's reputation.
Most of the major players from the original have returned for the sequel, including Ron Perlman as the big red demon, Selma Blair as his hot-tempered girlfriend, and Jeffrey Tambor as their dim-witted boss at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Even John Hurt makes a cameo flashback as HB's kindly adopted father. Doug Jones continues in the fish-man suit as Abe Sapien, this time providing the voice himself (David Hyde Pierce performed vocal duties the first time around). Missing entirely is Rupert Evans as Agent Myers, his character dismissed in a single line of dialogue. Newly introduced is by-the-book Agent Johann Krauss, a vaporous apparition (voiced by Seth MacFarlane of 'Family Guy') contained in a walking pressurized suit.
The plot of 'Hellboy II' posits that numerous races of mystical creatures (fairies, trolls, goblins, and more) have been living beneath the human world for millennia, abiding by an ancient truce to stay out of our way. Fed up with this complacency, the exiled Prince Nuada returns to seize his Elven father's throne and reactivate the long-dormant Golden Army, a fearsome force of thousands of indestructible mechanical warriors. To do that, he needs the three pieces of the Golden Crown. The first piece is easily stolen from a human auction house, and the second can be wrested from his father's hands. However, his twin sister Princess Nuala absconds with the final piece to the protection of Hellboy and the instantly-smitten Abe.
As a movie, 'The Golden Army' has a much grander scale than the first 'Hellboy'. Although modestly budgeted (at $85 million) by summer blockbuster standards, the film features some astoundingly elaborate production design that would make even Terry Gilliam blush, and countless mind-bending monstrous creations ripped from the deepest recesses of Mignola's and del Toro's imaginations. The action scenes are well choreographed and the movie has no shortage of visual effects, highlighted by an impressive city street battle between HB and a giant "Elemental" forest god.
What 'Hellboy II' lacks is the rich characterization of the first film. The plot is far too busy, leaving little time for any personal moments to flesh out the characters. Only one very funny drunken bonding moment between Hellboy and Abe reminds us why we were so invested in their fates in the last movie. The rest of the picture is spent running around shooting stuff and making lame wisecracks. Prince Nuada is a rather whiny, weak villain. His sister Nuala bears a striking resemblance to a young Michelle Pfeiffer, but the actress playing her is rather stiff. Abe is given next to nothing to do except pine after Nuala. Thanks to the movie's costume designers and hair stylists, Liz looks much sexier and tougher in the sequel, but sadly Selma Blair still hasn't learned how to act.
Plenty of Guillermo del Toro's visual genius is on display in 'Hellboy II: The Golden Army', but the story doesn't support it adequately. The film performed about the same as the first theatrically, not quite earning back its entire budget. As before, it will probably fare better on home video. There's much of interest to watch and savor in the movie, but on the whole the picture is frankly a little dull and is certainly not one of the director's stronger works.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Hellboy II: The Golden Army' to Blu-ray in two separate editions. Both are 2-disc sets with identical video content spread across one Blu-ray and one standard DVD. The regular edition comes in a standard keepcase with a lenticular slipcover that changes appearance between the live action and comic book depictions of the character. A more expensive Collector's Set includes extra packaging bric-a-brac such as a poster, a reproduction of the director's sketch notebook, and a figurine of one of the Golden Army robots.
The Blu-ray is BD-Live enabled and very slow to load in a standalone BD player. It also has a loud and annoying main menu screen that spoils one of the movie's best scenes and repeats in a very short loop.
Back when Sony issued the first 'Hellboy' on Blu-ray in 2007, that disc's razor sharp details and rich colors were near-reference quality for the format. Universal's release of the sequel is very similar in most regards, if slightly less impressive in direct comparison.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is presented in the movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, just like the original. The robust colors, including del Toro's use of amber hues, vibrant blues, and deep red tones, are reproduced vividly. The contrast range extends to inky blacks, though shadow detail is at times a bit obscure. At its best, the picture has extraordinary sharpness and detail. Close-up shots of HB's skin reveal exemplary texture. However, image clarity is not always consistent. Medium and wide shots are generally less impressive and look a little filtered. The movie also has an abundance of CG effects that are disappointingly soft and blurry for a movie of this budget, especially the Golden Army robots themselves. The end credits text appears somewhat jaggy as well.
Make no mistake, 'Hellboy II' is a fine-looking disc. It just doesn't hit the same heights as its predecessor. I rewatched the original 'Hellboy' immediately afterwards and found it noticeably sharper and more consistent in appearance. On the other hand, the sequel has no problems with color banding, which is an improvement in its favor.
If I went through a checklist to tick off various technical aspects of the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack, it might seem deserving of our highest possible score. Certainly, the sound mix has hyper-aggressive surround activity from all four discrete rear channels and some punishing bass. Sound effects are sharply recorded and dialogue is always perfectly intelligible. But that doesn't really tell the whole story. It's a very good audio track, but something is missing.
The soundtrack starts loud and just gets louder as it goes, like all the channels have been cranked up to 11.5. Unlike the outstanding sound design of del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth', 'Hellboy II' lacks finesse. The mix is all about power, with little room for subtlety or nuance. The surprisingly bland score by Danny Elfman rarely exhibits much warmth. While the LFE channel throbs almost constantly, the low end is not very refined. Perhaps most distractingly, the ADR dubbing is poorly integrated into the sound mix. Lip sync may be adequate, but voices sound very disconnected from the visuals.
Once again, these criticisms must be kept in proper perspective. 'Hellboy II' has very good audio that most viewers will find plenty satisfying.
Regardless of which Blu-ray edition you buy, both share the same video supplements. All of the content from the comparable 3-Disc Special Edition DVD is here in one form or another, just consolidated onto 2 discs.
Disc 1 (Blu-ray)
Disc 2 (DVD)
'Hellboy II: The Golden Army' is a decided step down from the first, much more entertaining 'Hellboy'. However, it does still feature enough of Guillermo del Toro's unique visionary touches to rate a recommendation. Helping things greatly are the Blu-ray's very nice video, audio, and bountiful assortment of bonus features.