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Hellboy II: The Golden Army (PG-13) ***½

Ron Perlman is shown in a scene from, "Hellboy II: The Golden Army". Photo: Egon Endrenyi.
Ron Perlman is shown in a scene from, "Hellboy II: The Golden Army". Photo: Egon Endrenyi.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald 

The title of Hellboy II: The Golden Army makes the movie sound like something intended primarily for people who saw the first Hellboy movie — which was OK but not exactly memorable — and can get excited about another one. It’s a dry, mundane title. It’s also the only thing about the film that doesn’t blow your mind right out of its comfortable, I’ve-seen-all-this-before rut.

Nominally, the film belongs to the swelling genre of comic-book superhero adaptations: It’s based on the character invented by Mike Mignola in the pages of Dark Horse comics, a red-skinned demon spawned to destroy mankind who wound up working for the FBI to save it instead. But Hellboy II is more a work of pure, awe-inspiring fantasy than a superhero picture. It is also a completely self-contained sequel, easy to follow and utterly captivating even for those who never saw the first film. A thriving imagination is all the movie requires.

This is a much more personal work for director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), who co-wrote the screenplay with Mignola. Where the first film four years ago felt like del Toro melding his sensibilities to Mignola’s material, Hellboy II makes Mignola come to del Toro. The movie is overrun with trolls and monsters and giant creatures made of boulders and winged fairies who look sort of cute until they get hungry and hunt the only thing they eat, which is bone (they like to get your teeth first).

The whole of Hellboy II is reminiscent of the fantasy sequences in Pan’s Labyrinth, such as the one in which a little girl encountered the carnivorous Pale Man who had eyeballs in the palms of his hands. The movie has the aura of a fairy tale made up by someone with a fondness for the macabre and the sinister — and the beautiful, too. Hellboy II is constantly awing you with its worlds-within-worlds and the creatures that inhabit them, such as a troll marketplace tucked away beneath the Brooklyn Bridge so dense with otherwordly creatures it trumps the Mos Eisley cantina sequence from Star Wars.

Unlike so many other films of its genre, Hellboy II doesn’t require any heavy lifting in order to disappear into its world or keep track of who’s who. Del Toro has a feather-light approach to fantasy: He knows the fun immediately seeps out of a movie when it becomes work, and his imagination is so endless, and his creativity so resourceful, that he makes Lucas and Spielberg seem like plodding old men. Compare the fist fight between Hellboy and the oversized goblin monster in The Golden Army with anything in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and tell me which of these two movies deserves to have grossed $300 million.

The plot of The Golden Army sends Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his gang of equally colorful outcasts — including his human-torch girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) and the half-man, half-fish psychic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) — on the trail of the elven prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who is piecing together an artifact to awaken the titular army of unstoppable warriors laying dormant deep inside the Earth. This may sound Lord of the Ring-ish complicated, but it really isn’t. The plot is merely a framework on which del Toro can hang one fabulous setpiece after another, each one advancing the narrative just enough to not seem superfluous. A subplot in which Liz decides whether to tell Hellboy she’s pregnant with his child becomes a visual motif in the film, such as Hellboy’s cradling of an infant in his arms during his fight with a gigantic forest monster.

Befitting most movies about superheroes, there’s never any question in Hellboy II whether the bad guys will win or lose. It’s the path del Toro takes to get there that gives the film its propulsive kick: You literally never know what’s coming next, and what does is always better and cooler than you could have imagined. Because of its genre, The Golden Army won’t get as many accolades as Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s every bit as transporting and entertaining, only not quite as serious and a lot more playful. It’s summer, you know? Get ready to be very happy.

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

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Screenwriters: Guillermo Del Toro, Mike Mignola

Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson, Lloyd Levin

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Violence, gore. Playing at area theaters.