It really is the height of narcissism. Give a guy powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men and he can still manage to cop a bad attitude. And while neither Hulk nor Iron Man can really be accused of harboring sunny dispositions, the leading men of ‘tude in the summer of 2008 were a couple of anti-heroes on the extreme grouchy side: Hellboy and Hancock.
Which one of these charm school drop-outs made bad look good? That’s the Smack and, believe me, this battle is not for the thin-skinned.
Into the ring strides “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” with Ron Perlman reprising his devilish character from the Dark Horse comic. The original (like the sequel) directed and co-written by Guillermo Del Toro is a fish out of water story, and so is “Hellboy II.” A superhero’s work is never done and Hellboy feels unappreciated. Maybe that’s why he a little touchy. He’s readily spotted on the street and can’t catch a break. Most folks openly question Hellboy’s motives. The main story in “Hellboy II” comes into play because a prince of the underworld (Nuada, Luke Goss) wants to take over topside. He unleashes a hungry batch of tooth fairies while stealing a portion of a golden crown. The full crown will allow the wearer to activate an army of mechanical warriors. There are complications: Abe the Fishman has a thing for the villain’s sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton); the irritating Tom Manning (Jeffery Tambor) has a new cohort in Johann Kraus at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense; Hellboy is having relationship problems with his combustible girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). All these elements come together to prove several points: Saving the earth is messy; those creatures you saw in your dreams are real, and the road to love (the inter-species type) is never smooth.
You won’t mistake Hancock for the King of Karma. He drinks too much, smiles too little and trusts no one. People don’t like him because he’s not likeable. Hancock’s good deeds cost him public support because he’ll destroy a freeway or building or train along the way. A man rescued by Hancock cooks up a heroic PR makeover but Ray Embrey’s (Jason Bateman) project threatens to crash and burn. “Hancock’s” storyline might have rolled to its logical conclusion, except for the big secret held by Ray’s suburban housewife, Mary Embrey (Charlize Theron). She represents a plot twist that changes everything. It provides the back story you didn’t know and the resolution you’d never expect. Peter Berg directed Vince Gilligan’s screenplay from Vincent Ngo’s original treatment.
These films handle similar elements, but the results come out differently. “Hancock” leans on Will Smith’s considerable charm and a good supporting cast because the story lags. I wonder where this movie could take the audience without Charlize Theron’s “big surprise.” Perhaps not far. The technical effects are certainly fun, but they seem grafted onto the storyline, rather than elements that grow from it. That notion extends to the overall tone of the production. It just looks and feels messy.
By contrast, “Hellboy II” holds together much better. The supporting actors show distinctive personalities that separate them from the background. Where “Hancock” offers wrecked cars and torn pavement, Guillermo Del Toro shows you a landscape that is nightmarish and compelling at the same time. Hellboy dispatches a forest god and turns a city street into the Garden of Eden. Creatures from the underworld are fully formed, grotesque and perfectly suited to the material. Guillermo Del Toro created a similar reality in “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
“Hellboy II” succeeds on another level. It’s honestly funny. Hellboy commiserates with Abe the Fishman on the uncertainties of love — then bursts into a duet singing “Can’t Smile without You.” Here is a red devil who’s a smart mouth, but not perpetually sullen. Hancock couldn’t carry that burden with a wheelbarrow.
Both movies have undeniable strengths, but does one of our superheros take a pounding? You bet.
These are enjoyable movies but one offers a better experience. “Hancock” shows the risk of relying on star power when the story, special effects and production values don’t quite jell. This time out it didn’t hurt Will Smith’s ability to open a movie strongly.
Future audiences may not be so forgiving, especially when a stronger film like “Hellboy II” gives you movie fantasy with fewer structural shortcomings. In this case, it may also reflect the mature, higher artistic reach of director Guillermo Del Toro. He’s already on record wanting to create a third film in the Hellboy series.
If that happens, it would be a stronger opponent for our winner, “Hellboy II.”