THE TROUBLE with the current spate of comic-book movies is that their numbing conventionality can make it easy to forget why you loved the original comics back in the day. "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" will help you remember.
With movies such as "The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man" falling off the Hollywood assembly line like so many identical toaster ovens, it's refreshing to see what happens when a visionary filmmaker such as Guillermo del Toro falls in love with a superhero who was described in the first "Hellboy" film as "6-foot-5, bright red, has a tail and is government funded."
Starting with characters created by Mike Mignola for Dark Horse Comics, writer-director Del Toro, whose one-of-a-kind "Pan's Labyrinth" won a trio of Oscars in 2007, is almost alone in his ability to re-create on screen the wide-eyed exhilaration and disturbing grotesqueness that is the legacy of reading comics on the page.
Ten effects house combined forces and used both computers and practical effects to animate the widest possible range of strange creatures, allowing "Hellboy II" to come alive with fantasy and invention. To see this film, beautifully shot by Guillermo Navarro, is to truly feel you've entered another world, filled with nightmarish things both unimaginable and indescribable.
Like the comic book it proudly is, "Hellboy II" reintroduces us to the trio of superheroes from the first film, individuals who, like the "Men in Black" of a few years back, are humanity's only defense against unspeakable evil perpetrated by disturbing creatures who walk among us hidden or in disguise.
First among equals at the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defense (B.P.R.D. for short) is hot-tempered Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a reluctant hero always angry because the public never believes he's one of the good guys. Hellboy's on-and-off girlfriend is Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), capable of bursting into flames if she's not treated right. The role of sidekick is filled by the all-knowing aquatic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), who has the kind of ageless wisdom apparently only being half-fish and half-mammal can provide.
After a brief moment recapping Hellboy's origins (he was brought to Earth by Nazi occultists and then liberated by the Allied Forces), the film offers a prologue set in 1955. The young Hellboy is living with his surrogate father, Professor Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm (a cameo by John Hurt, one of the stars of the first film), a scientist who tells the young superhero a bedtime story that conveniently provides the back story for the sequel.
Sometime in the dark past, we're told, elves and humans fought for control of the Earth. The elf king Balor created a golden mechanical army of huge warriors who "never knew hunger and could not be stopped." At the last minute, much to the disgust of his confrontational son, Prince Nuada, the king had second thoughts and locked the fierce army away. Anyone who thinks it will stay locked up doesn't go to a lot of movies.
Cut to the present day, where the prince (a 1970s Johnny Winter look-alike played by Luke Goss) returns from exile as a man with a plan. Accompanied by the massive troll Mr. Wink, he shows up at a posh Manhattan auction house not to bid, but to rip and run. Irked at the way humans have destroyed the Earth -- I warned you about buying that Hummer -- he goes against the wishes of his father and his twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), and makes plans to wake that sleeping army and take over the planet.
Though their personal relationship is anything but calm, Hellboy and Liz are still evil-fighting stalwarts. With Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) returning as FBI liaison, B.P.R.D. welcomes the unusual Professor Johann Kraus, a protoplasmic mystic, whatever that is, to the team and sets up trying to stop the prince.
The parade of creatures Del Toro and his team have come up with as this scenario unfolds, starting with a tour of the legendary Troll Market that one-ups the Mos Eisley cantina scene in "Star Wars," will make you want to tip your hat in wonder.
There is also a giant beanstalk that resembles something out of "Lord of the Rings" and ends up like a creature Japanese animator Hiyao Miyazaki might have dreamed up. And the film's Angel of Death, also acted by Doug Jones (who was Pan in "Pan's Labyrinth"), is everything a creature with that name ought to be.
Though "Hellboy II" is finally a film taken from a comic book, the passion of Del Toro, who was so involved with the story he did the creature vocals, helps us forget that.
More than anything, this film makes us eager for Del Toro's next announced project, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," in which the director's prodigious gifts will be combined with one of the great fantasy franchises of modern times. That should really be something to see.
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In general release.