Thursday, September 04, 2008

Summer of the superhero (2): Hellboy II and The Dark Knight

So, my two most anticipated films of the year have come and gone, both sequels, both saddled with the challenge of facing up to an awesome first instalment, both reuniting director and key players, both with the potential for greatness.

One was masterful, one disappointing. Let’s get the disappointment out of the way first.

A few weeks before it opened, I mentioned to a friend that I was eagerly anticipating ‘Hellboy II: the Golden Army’. His response was a cautious, “Might just be more of the same, though.”

Oh, that it had have been! The original ‘Hellboy’ was a delight: it came out of nowhere, unheralded, the brainchild of Guillermo del Toro, a man who had made a career out of alternating highly personal Spanish-language films (‘Cronos’ – what a debut!) with generic Hollywood productions … a ‘one for you, one for me’ arrangement that seemed to serve him well. Only with ‘Hellboy’, it was more a case of ‘one for me while I pretend it’s one for you’. Studio film-making shot through with a style all of his own. And I dug it big time.

I dug ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ a whole lot more – it’s on the personal faves list and I’m itching for it to get pulled out of the hat (a certain revisionist Boulting Brothers classic is next on the list) – and was in a state of almost pant-wetting excitement at the prospect of a ‘Hellboy’ sequel.

Ordinarily, this would be the point where I’d come out with an eminently sarcastic paragraph consisting of a single sentence where every component word is full stopped, just to ram the message home as bluntly as possible. Something like:

But. It. All. Went. Wrong.

I can’t quite bring myself to grind the axe so viciously with ‘Hellboy II’, though. Whatever its deficiencies (see next few paragraphs), it is nothing less than visually magnificent. The troll market sequence is a standout, likewise an extended sequence involving a forest elemental; although seemingly vindictive to begin with, once defeated by Hellboy, it dies the most poetic of all movie deaths, turning a grimy city sidewalk into a pastoral glade. Likewise, del Toro’s take on the angel of death: a deliciously ambivalent creation on every level.

Del Toro’s imagination gets free rein when it comes to the creatures and visuals, and he exploits it in to the full. Oh, that the same degree of imagination, of artistic flair had been lavished on the script. For the script is the albatross around the film’s neck, the millstone forcing it to shuffle when it should sprint, leap, fly …

The original succeeded because of its script, its direction and its cast. All elements lined up and clicked into place. The sequel fails because it takes the intelligent characterisations of its predecessor and dumbs them down. Remember the lovelorn Hellboy (Ron Perlman), worshipping Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) from afar, taking advance on matters of the heart from a nine-year-old kid? A wonderful, perfectly played scene. In the sequel, Hellboy and Liz are a couple and their constant bickering is on par with the last, desperately unfunny, series of ‘Men Behaving Badly’.

Or how about Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), Hellboy’s nominal departmental nemesis: originally a stuffed shirt who later proves his mettle and earns Hellboy’s grudging respect. Here, he’s reduced to a stuttering imbecile paraded in front of the audience for cheap laughs. Liz Sherman’s erstwhile edgy, unpredictable heroine is recast as a doe-eyed sap. Doug Jones as Abe Sapien – a cool, intelligent foil to Hellboy first time round, is forced into a lapdog-like romantic subplot and saddled with dimestore motivation purely to drive the plot forward in the final act.

Yeah, ‘Hellboy II’ is a glory to behold imagery-wise, but its nothing short of a betrayal of everything that made the first film so priceless.

Fortunately, Christopher Nolan doesn’t make the same mistakes in ‘The Dark Knight’. In fact, he doesn’t make any mistakes at all. ‘The Dark Knight’ is not only an improvement on the frankly fucking bloody brilliant ‘Batman Begins’, and not only the best film of the summer, but it’s one of the best films of the year, period.*

I’m aware that I’ve just spent about 600 words bemoaning ‘Hellboy II’ and I could easily knock out twice that many praising ‘The Dark Knight’ to the heavens, but before this posting gets too long, and too reliant upon strings of fanboy-grasped adjectives, I’ll just pick out just four aspects of the film at random and hopefully, if there’s anyone within a hundred miles of a cinema who hasn’t seen it yet, said individual will log off this blog and head for the multiplex in question PDQ:

1) Heath Ledger as The Joker. Christ, I feel his loss so badly watching this film. The Joker is quite simply his greatest performance. It telegraphs the career he would – should – have gone on to. Like Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Ledger tears down the screen, eradicates the boundary between actor and audience, and makes every fucking one of us complicit in his gouts of inspired mayhem.

2) Christian Bale as Batman. Going deeper and darker into Bruce Wayne’s psyche, his balls-to-the-wall acting style creating an even more emphatic schism between the two personalities, Bale takes a comic book (anti) hero and turns him into a mainstream Hamlet. I can’t think of any other blockbusting, studio produced summer event movie that delves with such Shakespeare fearlessness into the compromised morality of its ostensible hero.

3) The supporting cast: Michael Caine, making it a quadruple-whammy after ‘Batman Begins’, ‘Children of Men’ and ‘The Prestige’, doing some of the best work of his career; Morgan Freeman, the Mister Cool of cinema, who – as Antagony & Ecstacy has pointed out – claims the single best line of the film; Gary Oldman, building on the rugged humanity of Lieutenant Gordon in the first film, here developing the character to heights of almost tragic intensity; and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two Face, the only complaint about whom is that, with The Joker taking centre stage, he doesn’t survive to become the antagonist of a third instalment – Eckhart’s performance would easily have driven another movie.

4) The co-writer and director, Christopher Nolan, who, six films into his career has yet to deliver a film that is less than fascinating, and half of whose filmography – in my opinion – constitutes bona fide masterpieces. For what he’s done so far: slainte, Mr Nolan. For what he has the potential to go on to do: I can’t fucking wait!

*To qualify this remark, two of the US critics’ best films of ’07 – ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’ – didn’t open in the UK till January and February of this year respectively.

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