Monday, 2 May 2011

Bank Holiday Monday Double Bill: Hellboy

Professor Trevor 'Broom' Bruttenholm: What is it that makes a man a man? Is it his origins, the way things start?
The Dude: Sure, that and a pair of testicles.

This is how Hellboy starts, kind of! At a time when the Nazis are trying to gain the upper hand in World War 2, they turn to their studies of the occult in the hope that they can find an ultimate weapon. In the ruins of a castle in Scotland, a ritual to open a portal and transport some demons over from another dimension are disrupted by the Americans (Allies?). However, in the ensuing melee, the Russian dude used by the Nazis to open up the portal is sucked into the other world; in exchange for a small red thing with horns and a huge red hand: Hellboy.

Hellboy is looked after by the Allies (Americans?), particularly by Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm, and when he reaches adulthood, becomes the cornerstone of The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (Hellboy is based in Area 51!). Of course, it turns out that the Russian guy (Grigori Rasputin) didn’t die when he has sucked into oblivion; he became possessed with a demon that could be resurrected (all the way over in Moldavia (which doesn’t exist anymore but is associated with Transylvania and Vampire lore). Grigori ultimately lures Hellboy to a catacomb under a mausoleum somewhere near Moscow; where it turns out that his huge right hand’s purpose is to open another portal to demon-world. Hellboy gets out of this scrape, saves the girl (Liz - a firestarter), and kills the demon that Grigori turns into.

Guillermo del Toro made a cool film in Hellboy. It has great scope and has an almost epic feel about it, as the characters travel all over the world. However, it doesn’t really do anything special. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a great film; it just feels like del Toro was holding himself back, or had been told to hold back to prove that he could make an action blockbuster. Having said that he does manage to create a lovely sinister atmosphere. The opening scenes in Scotland are very moody (it very much reminds me of Return to Castle Wolfenstein - for all you gamers out there). And Kroenen (the weird Nazi robot made of sand and clockwork, with whirly-knife attachments) is particularly sinister, especially when we find out about his surgical addiction. I can’t help thinking that he was the inspiration of all the steam powered Nazis in Sucker Punch. Of course the big demon at the end of the film has lots of eyes; very del Toro.

                                                            Kroenen - Sinister

Ron Perlman was the obvious choice for Hellboy, and he is perfect; with many cigar smoking Ooooo Craps! Jeffrey Tambor is also great, very sarcastic, as Tom Manning. Doug Jones seems to be just right for the semi-aquatic Abe Sapiens (voiced by David Hyde Pierce; aka Nils Crane -Frasier’s brother). Karel Roden plays the demonic Grigori well, and of course John Hurt is as good as John Hurt usually is; he just has a wise knowledgeable voice; perfect for professor Bruttenholm.

Hellboy 2 starts with a flashback of Professor Bruttenholm telling a young Hellboy the story of the Golden Army. Many years ago the King of the Elves had a Golden Army built with the help of the goblins. The army was only for use against Men who have an insatiable desire for conquest and warfare. Controlled by a crown worn by the Elven King, the army is eventually used when men once again rise up to wage war. However, the King is ashamed by the havoc the army wreaks; so he has it entombed and breaks his crown into three pieces so that they may never be used again.

The King’s eldest son, the young Prince Nuada, believes this is the wrong course of action, and for his war-like tendencies is banished. Of course, this wasn’t just a bedtime story! Now Prince Nuada has now returned from exile and is determined to re-activate the Golden Army and defeat the world of men once and for all. Can Hellboy and the gang stop him?

Whereas the first film was relatively restrained, del Toro really goes to town in this film. The best example of this is the Troll market. It’s almost as if a lot of the more fantastical ideas from Pan’s Labyrinth were put on hold and rolled out for use in the Troll market; but not in a bad way, the whole thing looks amazing. The design of the whole film is so much more subtle, detailed, and beautiful. The animation at the start of the film telling the story of the creation of the Golden Army is really cool; giving everything a wooden effect makes it look less cartoony.

The Forest Elemental is also brilliant, I really love the way all the goo that comes out as it dies turns into grass and flowers. I usually don’t try to over-analyse these kind of films, as they are first and foremost great entertainment; but I think it’s clear that the forest elemental is a comment on environmental issues. Just before releasing it, Prince Nuada says that it is the last of its kind, and if it is killed the world will never see its like again.

The Golden Army itself is brilliantly realised; great mechanics and a very fiery core. The BPRD is a bit more involved now; walking around Area 51 near the beginning of the film is very much like Tommy Lee Jones taking Will Smith around the MIB building. Finally, to finish off the whole del Toro look of the film, the Angel of Death has loads of eyes in a weird place: on its wings!

In terms of the cast, all the usuals are back; but now we have the evil-looking Prince Nuada played by Luke Goss. Who would have thought one of the members of 80s boy-band Bros would one day be a cool evil elf in a big budget blockbuster?! Selma Blair returns as Liz, but gets to do far more with her character than she did in the first film. We also have the new BPRD member Dr. Johann Krauss; a weird sort of vapour-powered gadget-loving genius in a deep-sea-diving suit! Krauss’ voice in none other than Family Guy writer Seth MacFarlane. Random, but cool.

                                                     Steam-powered Johann Krauss

                                                           Which one is the scary elf?

                                                               Oh. That one!

I think I prefer the second film. Both are great stand alone films; but the detail and the richness of production of the The Golden Army steals it for me. There is often a danger with the second instalment of a film to try and over-complicate the plot to show what more can be done with the particular mythology (Dead Man’s Chest, Matrix Reloaded), but Golden Army doesn’t try to do anything particularly complicated. Rather than trying to be clever it shows a far more detailed universe than we were aware existed in the first film.

Overall, both films are great. Very enjoyable, with a mixture of fantasy, action, a little romance, inspired production, and characters to relate to; even if they’re huge, red, and have horns. But then Hellboy is such a flawed character he’s more human than many other superheroes.

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