Review: For brazen Hellboy, it’s not easy being red

Life is never easy for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense’s human minions.

Saddled with the already-daunting task of keeping tabs on the government’s worst-kept secret — a hulking, cigar-chomping demon known as Hellboy (Ron Perlman) — they seem hopelessly ill-equipped to defend themselves against more menacing beasts.

In Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 adaptation of Mike Mignola’s popular comic, the bureau’s flesh-and-blood agents were torn apart by overgrown insects. In “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” are devoured by spider-like parasites.

If their duties seem thankless, consider the quandary facing mutants such as Hellboy — whose square-jawed scowl aptly suggests a prickly disposition and his incendiary girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair).

With their cool-headed comrade Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) in tow, del Toro’s superhuman peacekeepers are charged with protecting a public that considers them monsters. They police their own kind, only to retreat to a clandestine, Batcave-style lair, where they hide from society. The ultimate indignity? The place is in Jersey.

While the first “Hellboy” found its hero struggling to accept himself, sawed-off horns and all, “The Golden Army” is more a coming-

out party, as the lobster-red menace begins to embrace his roots with something resembling pride. This presents a dilemma when Nuada (Luke Goss), prince of the forest creatures, returns to Manhattan to lead a revolt against mankind.

Should Hellboy reject his fellow freaks to defend those who mistreat him? It’s a head-scratcher that lends “The Golden Army” real emotional resonance. Iron Man and Batman may be human, but they are never as emotionally accessible as Hellboy, who’s just as likely to be belting Barry Manilow tunes as he would be body-slamming a troll.

Indeed, del Toro’s story, which tempers the gloomy threat of a holocaust with the cartoonish swagger Perlman brings to his role as a brazen, stony-fisted trash-talker, is as much a sly romantic comedy as a no-holds-barred adventure.

Clearly, the Mexican-born director has a deep affection for both his characters and the world of gods and fairy-tale monsters, and it translates into a rich, sophisticated sequel that actually improves on the original.

It also is a film whose visual majesty surprisingly surpasses del Toro’s last feat of the imagination, the Oscar-nominated “Pan’s Labyrinth.” And yet his lavish sets and hellish demons would be little more than exotic eye candy were it not for his gift of storytelling and his respect for the power of fantasy. During a season filled with superhero adventures, “Hellboy” stands alone as the strongest of the lot.

CREDITS

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

4 stars

Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Jeffrey Tambor

Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Mike Mignola

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes

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