Hellboy II: The Golden Army

What is it about me that makes me fail to love the “Hellboy” movies? I liked the first one well enough, albeit unenthusiastically, and now the sequel — “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” — strikes me as nothing more than moderately enjoyable, occasionally wonderful, and often overblown. Yet all around me people are positively adoring it. Is there a defect in my soul? Did I need to see “Meet Dave” before “Hellboy II,” not after it, in order to appreciate “Hellboy II” better?

Like its predecessor, this comic-book-based adventure was written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, the supremely talented and visionary Mexican filmmaker whose “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the best films of 2006. “Hellboy II” is never less than extraordinary to look at, with all manner of fantasy-world beasties and bizarre contraptions filling the frame. The nice thing about Del Toro is that he’ll go to the trouble of making something look fantastical even when ordinary would have sufficed. His imagination and creativity are seemingly boundless.

Except when it comes to the story itself, that is. Credited to Del Toro and “Hellboy” comics creator Mike Mignola, the plot is standard fantasy stuff. Evil Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), a tall, severe-looking blond man, seeks to reawaken and control the indestructible “golden army” of mechanical super-soldiers by collecting the separate pieces of a magic crown. The crown was divided eons ago precisely to prevent anyone from taking charge of the army, and Nuada is acting against the wishes of his non-evil twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton).

Getting the crown fragments means wreaking havoc on the human world, which draws the attention of the U.S. Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. This secret government organization employs Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a non-evil demon with red skin, horns on his forehead, a tail, and an enormous right hand made of stone. Hellboy’s team is responsible for fighting the monsters when they appear in our world, and that means stopping Prince Nuada before he unleashes hell.

Perlman’s Hellboy continues to be casually sardonic, the way you like him, eager to annoy his officious boss Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) and pleased to appear regularly in YouTube videos. He’s balanced by Doug Jones as Abe Sapien, his prim, half-fish (or something) co-worker. Hellboy and fire-starter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) are still a couple, but they’re having difficulties. Meanwhile, Abe is drawn to Princess Nuala. All of this sets up the story’s subtext about the crazy things we do for love, as well as justifying the film’s funniest scene: Hellboy and Abe drinking beer and commiserating about dames.

Yes, this summer we prefer our superheroes flawed and mildly alcoholic. Hellboy is a little more stable than Hancock, and “The Golden Army” flirts only briefly with his inner conflict over being a demon in a human world (working for humans, no less). Whatever psychological dramas might play out in Hellboy’s life are mostly left for later sequels (or not).

Del Toro’s action sequences are always a treat, and I’ve already alluded to the fantastic costumes, production design, and special effects. I assume some of the more monstrous characters are computer-generated, but they blend almost seamlessly with the real world. It’s hard to tell who’s a cartoon and who’s actually an actor in a rubber suit. It’s the dialogue that feels weaker this time around, lacking much of the first film’s zest and spark. The main exception: an enthusiastic German-born government agent named Johann Kraus, voiced by “Family Guy’s” Seth MacFarlane, whose cheerful verbosity is good for a lot of laughs.

So … yeah. I feel a little strange being ambiguous (but mostly positive) about a comic book franchise when everyone knows you’re supposed to choose sides and argue to the death, but there you have it. Enjoy your moment in the box office sun, Hellboy, before Batman destroys you.

B- (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, a lot of action violence and supernatural goop.)