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Review: Hellboy II

Not much would make me want to be 12 again. Halloween 1964 was great good fun (and on a Saturday!) but soon afterward, life started to get mighty weird. Ordinary girls who lived in ordinary houses and had ordinary names (like Terry, Laura, and Kathy—not a Samantha in the bunch!) became mysterious, mythic creatures who in defiance of my own will drew my fascination away from the trappings of a comfortable grade-school life, like flying kites, raiding the neighbors’ garbage on Wednesdays for broken radios and TVs, and…monster movies.

Monster movies were a big part of late grade-school culture in 1964. Cheesewad classics like The Crawling Eye and Curse of the Demon had scared the crap out of me when I was in third grade, but by the time I was 12 the experience was drifting in a new direction. The monsters were becoming less scary than ridiculous. And…we laughed. I think that boys discover bravery by laughing at the things that used to frighten them. (Some of us laughed at girls; most of us eventually called a truce and married them.)

Being home alone for the nonce (and it’s getting to be a lot of nonce, sigh) I rented a monster movie a few nights back and sat down to find the 12-year-old in myself, if there’s any of him left. The movie is Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and boy, if all monster movies were like that, I might be willing to go through puberty again. (Wait. No, strike that. Forget it. Never. Sheesh.)

I tepidly enjoyed my first viewing of the original 2004 Hellboy, and my admiration has grown after seeing it a few more times. In 2004 I didn’t recognize it for what it was: A ’60s monster movie with much better monsters—plus a monster we could identify with. Sympathetic monsters as a concept are not new. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) pitted the anthropoid against the sauropod, and expected us to root for our nearer cousin. (This did not stop some of us from identifying with Godzilla.) Hellboy II, however, perfects this approach by completely understanding its audience and giving them absolutely everything they could want.

Hellboy‘s high concept is that of a toddler demon accidentally dragged into our dimension by a group of occultist Nazis in 1944. Hellboy, known to his buds as “Red,” is a poster child for the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. Although nominally a son of Satan, he is raised with high standards in a secret military base by kindly Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and keeps his horns ground down to stubs so they don’t skewer anybody accidentally. Sixty years later, Hellboy has a job for a paranormal Men-In-Black-ish agency, hunting evil occult-ish thingies with a revolver as big around as my thigh. As the 2008 film opens, Hellboy has an annoying new boss—a pompous German ghost who lives in a deep-sea diving suit—and the same hot girlfriend, the incendiary Liz (Selma Blair) who becomes a Johnny Storm-ish human torch whenever she gets annoyed. Hellboy annoys her at times, but he’s a hell boy, after all, and fire does nothing to him. The intellectual and C3PO-ish gill-man Abe Sapiens returns, carrying around Ghostbusters-ish paranormal thingie detectors and sounding befuddled.

The plot is conventional action-film fare: An evil albino kung-fu-ish elf named Prince Nuada wants all three parts of an ancient gold crown that would give him control over an army of 4,900 Tik-Tok-ish clockwork warriors, and mayhem ensues. I think most of us are a little tired of deranged albinos, I’m guessing real albinos most of all. It was purely gratuitous albinism, after all; Nuada could have been purple for all the difference it would have made. We 12-year-olds don’t care what color the monsters are. We just want to see their asses kicked, and imagine ourselves doing the kicking.

And that’s where Hellboy II excels: It knows what 12-year-old boys want, and ladles it on with a trowel. Guillermo Del Toro created the single most marvelous collection of monsters in film history, and has them all wandering around in the hollow portions of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Troll Market is nothing but monsters, and our good-guy freakos Hellboy and Abe don’t get a second look there, as they search for Nuada, belch, have repartee, get in fights, and generally wreck things. The humor is gross but nonsexual, the violence comic book-ish and not especially bloody, and through it all is an un-subtle invitation to 12-year-old boys to take it all in and…laugh.

The real secret is that Hellboy himself is a boy—just like us. He wants attention (he gets in trouble by posing for photos and signing autographs) and resents the constant implication that he’s freaky and unattractive. His life is a sort of prepubescent nirvana: He’s snotty and rude but heroic, as boys always like to imagine themselves. He’s got the biggest damned handgun I’ve ever seen. And he gets paid to make a mess.

The film has some weak spots where it goes too far toward the comic: Hellboy and Abe drink too much beer at one point and start singing “I Can’t Smile Without You” with Barry Manilow on the CD player. That aside, it’s a wonderfully effective montage of chases and fight scenes, with a weird Celtic steampunk-ish setting for the climactic battle against the Golden Army. It’s certainly derivative; in fact, it borrows from everything in sight, and may in fact be the most ish-ish film I’ve ever seen. But that didn’t keep it from being a great deal of fun. After it was done, I could only think: Well, I’ve taken care of the monsters. Now I just have to figure out girls.

Wait! Mission accomplished. The nice part about being 12 is that you’re not 13 yet. And the really great part about being 56 is that you’ve already been 13.

Highly recommended.

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