One day all blockbusters will look like Hellboy II. Which is to say that, working within an increasingly restrictive and prohibitively expensive format, they will be spliced together with the tried and tested best bits of other blockbusters to numbing effect. In this case, Hellboy II boasts a Lord of the Rings introduction, a Men in Black narrative set-up, some Star Wars set-pieces, and a high-tension Matrix-style finale.
This apparent paucity of imagination is, of course, not the fault of the writer-director Guillermo del Toro, a genuine master stylist (see his Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth). Here, he has lavished the adventure of his eponymous wisecracking devil spawn (played by Ron Perlman) with sumptuous production design (filmed at Korda studios, in Hungary), comedy diversions, twists and the best computer generated effects that an alleged Dh294 million ($80 million) budget can buy. Instead, the comic book blockbuster itself - increasingly the only option left for the studio-financed summer event movie - has marketed itself into a corner with a format so prescriptive that all it has left to offer the viewer is subtle variations of déjà-vu.
We start much as we did in the first Hellboy (also directed by del Toro), with an extended "origins" flashback. Thus we learn, again, that our red-skinned and bad-tempered hero is a descendant of Satan, summoned by the Nazis and rescued by the Allies in the Second World War. We also learn, however, that some angry elves, together with an army of lethal golden uber-soldiers (see title) are preparing to destroy humanity as punishment for our lax treatment of their woods, streams and mountains.
The elves, we soon learn, are led by the evil prince Nuada (Luke Goss, from the Eighties popsters Bros, doing a convincing Tom Cruise impression, circa Interview with a Vampire). His hunt for the three pieces of a "precious" golden crown that will give him ultimate power is very Middle Earth (it's no coincidence that del Toro's next project is The Hobbit, produced by the Rings director Peter Jackson).
Nuada's demonic quest brings him face-to-face with Hellboy, the top crime fighter at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (think Men in Black, but instead of aliens, they hunt trolls and fairies). Hellboy's sidekick is Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a flame-throwing "pyrokineticist". Hellboy's other sidekick is Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a punctilious fish-man mutant who, in an underground sequence seemingly inspired by the Star Wars creature Cantina, falls for Nuada's virginal twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton). And on it goes, dipping and swerving through misadventures and destructive set-pieces that recall, sometimes vaguely, sometimes explicitly, the best and the worst of comic book adventures from this year (there's a street brawl straight out of Iron Man) and seasons past (check out the resurrection scene, stolen straight from The Matrix).
The problem with all this, of course, is that despite del Toro's assured touch, it's familiar enough to be enervating. The mildly fresh eco-message is ham-fisted and essentially dropped halfway through, while the mano-a-mano finale between Nuada and Hellboy is astoundingly lazy in its sheer lack of invention. In fact, the most original thing in Hellboy II is Hellboy himself - and yet he's also the movie's greatest weakness.
Gruff, violent, and needlessly boorish, even when he's supposed to be charming, he is a thoroughly alienating presence. Del Toro has bizarrely chosen to ignore all of the fascinating character conflicts that someone actually descended from the devil might have, and instead his Hellboy, loyal to a fault to Mike Mignola's original 1993 creation, is a two-fisted bully, the kind of clichéd screen character who licks his lips every time he sees a brawl and charges in gleefully throwing haymakers.
Here, even when Hellboy sings Barry Manilow's Can't Smile Without You, the scene is sold explicitly for laughs, not because Hellboy is being sensitive, but because, hey, it's funny to watch someone as tough as Hellboy doing something as effete as singing. It doesn't help that Perlman plays like a slightly less intelligent version of Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen. This perhaps was intentional, and possibly taps into the story's Second World War origins, but it makes for a strangely anachronistic performance that ultimately epitomises the entire movie - stylish and cinematic, but without an ounce of feeling.