A primer, then, for the secretly uninitiated: Hellboy, or "Red," as his friends call him (played by Ron Perlman in the films), is a demon from hell (literally) who entered this earthly realm when Hitler's minions opened a portal to you-know-where while trying to form an alliance with the big guy down below. Rescued by the Allies and raised by a gentle British professor (John Hurt), Hellboy has burnt-red skin, a long tail, thick horns on his forehead (filed down to stubs), and a massive right arm made of stone — the "Right Hand of Doom" in creator Mike Mignola's comics. Red packs a mean right punch, but luckily, raised on Howdy Doody and Santa Claus (as a Hellboy II flashback tells us), he's fighting on the side of man, not with the evildoers who keep coming up from hell to slay us all. Score one for nurture versus nature.
In the new flick, Hellboy and his girlfriend, Liz (Selma Blair), who can turn herself into a ball of fire at will (or when she's depressed), are living in a government-run bunker below Manhattan, hunting demons. As Liz gears up to announce her pregnancy, up pops the centuries-dead-yet-still-stylish Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, channeling David Bowie), scouring Manhattan for a shard from a magic crown that, when reassembled, will raise the titular Golden Army, whose soldiers turn out in the end to look like high-end, Neiman Marcus-catalog versions of Transformer toys.
Despite the rosary beads Red wraps around his wrist or the crucifix at Liz's throat, Hellboy II doesn't have much on its mind, but few will care, since del Toro and his stellar Pan's Labyrinth team, including Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, stage one virtuoso set piece after another. Chomping on his cigar, the otherwise uninteresting Red — I think I just got banned from this month's Comic-Con — hulks out against not only the vast Golden Army but tiny, pissed-off tooth fairies; a magnificent, multiwinged, multi-eyed Angel of Death (Doug Jones); and, in the film's action centerpiece, a 70-foot forest demon that looks like a leaner, meaner cousin of Lord of the Rings' mighty Treebeard. (Del Toro, of course, is set to direct The Hobbit for LOTR mastermind Peter Jackson.)
Smitten still with the movies of his youth, the 43-year-old del Toro joyfully references everything from the cantina in Star Wars to the Alien pod field to Ghostbusters' marauding dough boy. A B-movie director (see: Mimic, Blade II) with a touch of the poet about him (see: The Devil's Backbone), del Toro was elevated to capital-A artist with 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, a Nazi-era Through the Looking Glass fantasy with underworld creatures so strange and wondrous that few seemed to notice that the film itself is mean-spirited and unpleasant. With this new Hellboy, del Toro is clearly coasting — as Spielberg often does between dramas — and while there's no shame in having some summertime fun (and making some summertime money), the question hangs: Is del Toro a mad genius or an imaginative hack? Or both?
Time and hobbits should tell the tale, and in the meantime, the violent but gore-free Hellboy II: The Golden Army will amaze 12-year-olds and amuse their parents, although at one point or another, a spouse may lean over and whisper to the other: "Wasn't that stretchy-faced demon with three eyes in Pan's Labyrinth?" Maybe so, Marge, but wow, isn't it beautiful?