There is an unwritten rule that many movies seem to abide by: When in doubt, play some Manilow.
Playing one of the crooner's schmaltzy classics appears to be a trump card many filmmakers pull out for offbeat, effectively comic effect. And it's a card Guillermo del Toro doesn't mind whipping out in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."
Even with the wall-to-wall destruction, titanic monsters and dizzying fight sequences this movie doles out, the titular cigar-chomping, wisecracking freak of nature (played once again by Ron Perlman) getting hammered and singing along to "Can't Smile Without You" is the movie's most awesome sight.
But all that other stuff works, too.
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Del Toro returns to helm the sequel to his 2004 hit, based on Mike Mignola's comic book. (Mignola works even more closely with del Toro this time around, with both men coming up with the story.) In this chapter, the government's not-so-top-secret weapon against supernatural forces battles a renegade underworld prince (Luke Goss), intent on destroying us silly, selfish humans with the help of a long-dormant army of killing machines he is out to awaken.
The second "Hellboy" shows that del Toro can't help but put a fractured, freakish tint over the glossy world of cinematic superheroism. While other superhero movies are slicked out to the point where it looks like everything was polished with Turtle Wax, the world of "Hellboy" is fascinatingly jacked up.
Even with their superpowers, Hellboy and his crew, which includes his pyrokinetic girlfriend (Selma Blair) and his amphibious partner (Doug Jones), are still the most pitiful-looking superhero strike force out there.
When they step into a secret "troll market" looking for info, the place is filled with characters that look like they were too mugly to make it in the legendary Mos Eisley cantina scene in "Star Wars." Not since Cronenberg have I seen a filmmaker so intent on finding artistry in the appalling.
But even more in this one than in the original, the grand spectacle ante is raised considerably. As one of the very few critics who didn't go gaga over "Pan's Labyrinth" (visually intriguing as it was, didn't you think that good girl vs. evil captain story line was a bit tedious?), I think del Toro works best when he is just a sensuous genre director not trying to make some Profound Statement with his movies.
Indeed, the man's flair for composing well-crafted, action-filled set pieces is undeniable. He also gives us a comic book movie that practically takes screwball glee in not taking itself seriously, as it presents a hero who acts more like a self-indulgent frat boy than a valiant crimefighter.
This "Hellboy" works on such a visually reactive level, you may be impressed even when you leave the theater trying to figure out what exactly happened.
Like nearly all the big-budget action flicks I've seen this summer, its mad-dash attempts to tie everything up before the closing credits leave a third act that seems more hastily put together than properly fleshed out. (As I told a colleague who wasn't that satisfied with the script, the last thing I expect from a summer movie is a satisfying screenplay -- it's officially an oxymoron.)
But before all that happens, "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" is a nutty, striking thing to behold. Whenever an action/sci-fi fantasy like this has time to pull out the Manilow, you know you're dealing with a different breed of cat.