Here's a welcome, if not wholly successful, franchise salvage job. Derived from the Mike Mignola comics, 2004's first Hellboy did very little business in a summer where the more conventional Spider-Man 2 was breaking box-office records - a pity, as it set out one of the few recent story universes that felt as though there was more for sequels to explore. The film performed steadily on DVD, receiving a boost - and the full Special Edition treatment - two years later when director Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth took the cinema by storm. Now del Toro has used the clout afforded him after the latter movie to jolt Mignola's characters back into life for Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
For the uninitiated: Hellboy is the codename of a creature raised from the fiery depths by Nazis during a World War II experiment, only to be liberated by American troops and brought up by an English professor to do good rather than evil - and he's grown increasingly pissed off that the rewards for so doing are far less. On screen, he's a big red hulk played by Ron Perlman who stomps out crime in Manhattan, assisted by an amphibian fish thing and his pyrokinetic (and, in this instalment, pregnant) girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair). Evil is represented by the former boyband star Luke Goss, looking like a cross between Marilyn Manson and Legolas as a disgruntled underworld prince hellbent on turning the stuff of bedtime stories - trolls, tooth fairies and beanstalks - against New York's citizens.
Del Toro's forte has always been using effects to bolster his stories, rather than merely as money shots for the trailers. Though his latest has been shot on Eastern European locations using British and American actors and a considerable amount of digital work, The Golden Army nonetheless constitutes a seamlessly integrated universe - to the extent that, in a cherishably self-reflexive moment, the eight-foot-high, gobstopper-red Hellboy can proclaim, while walking through a marketplace populated by the habituees of the Star Wars cantina, "Nobody's looking at us. We blend right in!" (As one of his entourage is a faceless German in a dining suit - "over und out!" - this is quite the claim.)
Yet elsewhere, The Golden Army can appear so integrated that it sometimes seems as though a saturation point of some kind is being reached. The first Hellboy offered a rookie FBI agent as a way into this world - sacrilege for the fanboys, for whom this seemed a regrettable concession to the mainstream, but a useful startpoint for the franchise, allowing an outsider's eyes to acclimatise to these most distinctive of environments. The wow factor is, if anything, even greater here, but after a tremendously enjoyable opening half-hour, the assembled spectacle begins to swamp the finer details of the plot. Is it possible for a film to be too imaginative?
Still, if I couldn't tell you exactly what was going on during the latter stages of The Golden Army, it sure as hell looks and sounds fantastic. Del Toro is capable of effortless felicities - a sound cut from the young Hellboy brushing his teeth to the footsteps of an approaching army; a gunshot that momentarily appears to shatter the camera lens - and has a deft way of deflecting false sentiment. (The best line is "I'm not a baby, I'm a tumour.") Every element on screen, from the fish-eye contact lenses the amphibian sports to the computer-generated fairy poo and malevolent beanstalk curd the hero encounters has been lovingly overseen, while the ending sets up the intriguing possibility of a third film in which Hellboy becomes a Helldad. Could Hellboy perhaps be the new Shrek?
Hellboy II: The Golden Army screens on ITV1 tonight at 10.15pm.