The two filed-down horns on Hellboy’s head are his signature and his weakness. They alone testify to his vulnerable fear of non-conformity—the fragility masked by his rough-edged ‘tude—which screenwriter and director Guillermo Del Toro captured in his first film. Four years later, Del Toro’s fame has risen while the devil spawn creature that made his stateside rep has flattened and floundered. Despite a decent turn by Ron Perlman, here Hellboy is no operatic tragic hero but a third-rate Bruce Willis. Betrayed by Del Toro’s script and a tone that shifts from jaunty spy parody to shameless Lord of the Rings mimic, he’s cheapened into just another cocky PI whose only real conflict is he can’t stop punching people in the face. A preamble where we learn that as a bucktoothed 11-year-old, Hellboy believed in both Howdy Doody and Santa Claus adds little depth. For much of the film, neither does his love affair with firestarter Liz (Selma Blair). The last time we saw them, her soul was stolen; now, the drama is Hellboy misplaced her toothbrush.
Comedy doesn’t suit this moody franchise. The original’s one misstep was casting the great Jeffrey Tambor as the head of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development—the baggage of George Bluth turned a sly role to a smirking slap on the back. Those who also grimaced at guileless agent John Myers will be pleased to know he’s been dispatched to Antarctica with no more fanfare than an expository sentence. But while Del Toro and his fleet of artists are dazzling designers—every creature is astounding and even a carrying case is an intricate whirligig—when it comes to humor, they’re all thumbs. Del Toro creates great machines, but besides the fluke of the first Hellboy, his characters leave me cold. All the atmosphere of Pan’s Labyrinth couldn’t excuse that its lead tot was maudlin sap, and I know you’re not expecting a defense of Wesley Snipes in Blade II. A duet between Hellboy and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) to Barry Manilow is a disposable gag that could have been written for Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. A fight scene has Hellboy battle while clutching a baby in his tail for nothing more than cheap drama and a catch phrase. Worse, nearly every baddie from a tiny tooth fairy (who lunges for the mouth with a nasty dental drill whine) to a skyscraping tree god is dispatched with a bullet. Where’s the fantasy in that?
As Hellboy wisecracks towards his final battle with an outraged Elf Prince (Luke Goss) who wants to awaken 490 golden soldiers, great self-repairing clockworks of death, to avenge his people on the nature-destroying humans (now there’s a sub-theme we haven’t heard this week!), he’s asked why he chooses to align with those who dismiss him as a freak and wreck the earth. Hellboy doesn’t have an answer. And neither do we—why are audiences again being forced to side against nature? But it’s a question worth making a movie about, and this sequel feels like a disposable stepping-stone towards it. Hopefully, Perlman won’t be made to mug his way through that plot. Only with the warning that Liz is expecting the demon child’s assumedly half-demon spawn, Del Toro’s apt to muck it up with diaper jokes, though I’m sure his Pampers will look phenomenal.