Notes from the Underworld: Reviews of ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’, ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth,’ ‘The Wackness’

It’s a weekend of underworld heroes, in all shapes and colours. An infernal brute fights off an underground horde in Hellboy II: The Golden Army; a trio of subterranean explorers go spelunking in the 3D depths of Journey to the Center of the Earth; and a young drug dealer scores pot from Jamaican gangsters beneath the streets of Manhattan in The Wackness. These movies are, respectively, a state-of-the-art supernatural fantasy, a corny family adventure, and a quirky coming-of-age picture. But they’re all guy movies. Each is geared to a different demographic. Hellboy II is a masterful fantasy that should appeal comic book fanboys, Lord of the Rings freaks, fans of director Guillermo del Toro, and anyone who appreciates sci-fi spectacle. Unless you’re 12 years old, or are a boomer trying to graft your childhood onto your innocent progeny, you might want to pass on Journey to the Center of the Earth. Sure, it’s in digital 3D, which offers an undeniable novelty, but better 3D movies will be coming along soon. As for The Wackness, which won this year’s Audience Award at Sundance, it’s a charming American indie film that offers a more modest style of summer escape. Details:

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I came to this movie as a total skeptic. I was bored by the original Hellboy, and unlike most cinephiles, I was unmoved by Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth, which I found to be a nasty, heartless, gratuitously violent exercise in high-minded pretense. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. But clearly it rubbed me the wrong way.

So I was not looking forward to Hellboy II. As I watched the film, I tried to resist for a while and found some good reasons to—del Toro’s dialogue is clunky, his plotting is schematic, and his abject devotion to monsters, who are more dimensional than his humans, is suspect. But Hellboy II is one of those rare sequels that’s far better than the original. It’s a visual tour de force, with an original narrative that riffs on a motherlode of mythological and surrealist fantasy while leavening it with pop wit. In the succession of brilliant directors who invent fantasy creatures, del Toro now seems poised to inherit the mantle of creature fetishism pioneered by David Cronenberg, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson.

Hellboy II reunites the basic cast from the original, led by Ron Perlman as the hard-boiled crimefighter with sawed-off horns, a hide like a boiled lobster and a satanic tail. He’s an anti-hero superhero, who talks the talk like a noir detective and walks the walk like spaghetti western cowboy. He’s a red-hued blue-collar bruiser with a short fuse and a big heart, kind of a cross between John Wayne and the Incredible Hulk. He loves to use his fists, and he packs a massive six-shooter with bullets the size of shotgun shells. He’s also an American Everyman, a genial slob who loves kittens and is addicted to television and candy. And it’s hard not to like Perlman in the role. He’s not another Hollywood star who’s adopted a franchise like buying into a summer home. He’s a character actor most people would have trouble naming. But through a ton of latex makeup, he brings humour, warmth and surprising subtlety to a comic book creation. Perlman also grounds del Toro’s hyper-stylized fantasy world with a raw, no-nonsense realism.

As for his cohorts in the Hellboy clubhouse, Selma Blair, who plays his incendiary girlfriend, doesn’t have a lot to do except to look hot, and deeply concerned. Doug Jones, a movement specialist, gets to expand his role as aquatic empath Abe Sapien. And as the bumbling government bureau chief, a gormless Jeffrey Tambor looks like he misses his moustache from The Larry Sanders Show.

The sequel’s story is far more ambitious than the original Hellboy. Like Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series, it pits all of humanity against a universe of dark supernatural forces that have been unleashed by a talismanic device. An evil prince—an albino samurai freak with a long blond mane threatens to reanimate a mothballed mechanical army of “golden soldiers” if he can assemble the missing pieces of a magic crown. The soldiers are like luxury-model Transformers sculpted around glowing embers. And like so many of the creatures in this film, they have a gothic elegance that’s quite breathtaking. Other sinister but sublime marauders include the “tooth fairies,” a swarm of tiny Tinker Bell-like critters that are very cute, but tear through human flesh to devour the calcium of bones and teeth. Del Toro also constructs a baroquely detailed Troll Market, which I found reminiscent of the hallucinatory netherworld in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.

There’s a lot of pastiche in Hellboy II, a mongrel vision that is literally crawling with allusions to a wide range of movies—from Star Wars to Blade Runner. The Abe Sapien character talks with same delicate, mechanical cadence as C-3PO from Star Wars. And at times it struck me that the Hellboy franchise is just a more sophisticated, adult version of Ghostbusters, another New York world awash with ectoplasmic slime. Ah, boys will be boys.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Here, on the other hand, is a descent into hell without a shred of artistic ambition. If you think it’s just cheesy lightweight summer entertainment, you’re right. But hey, it’s historic. This is the first narrative feature shot in digital 3D. Which is only appropriate. Journey to the Center of the Earth is not what you’d call deep, but it is about depth: characters plummet thousands of miles through a volcanic rabbit hole to the bowels of the Earth, where they find a cavernous world with a subterranean sea, carnivorous plants, rampaging dinosaurs, and flying piranha the size of pit bulls.

This is the second Hollywood adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The first—made in 1959 with James Mason and Pat Boone—tried to cash in on the Verne craze surrounding the success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days. (For the record, 20,000 Leagues, co-starring Kirk Douglas and a giant squid, was the first movie I ever saw as a child and I was deeply moved.)

The new Journey is somewhat more faithful to Verne than the 1959 movie in telling his story of a scientist (Brendan Fraser) and his nephew (Josh Hutcherson) who mount an expedition to Iceland. It’s a meta-adaptation: the characters use Verne’s novel as a reference as they retrace the steps of the nephew’s father, who was ridiculed for being a “Vernian”—someone who believed Verne’s books were true accounts, not science fiction.

But all that’s really beside the point. This feature directing debut by special effects specialist Eric Brevig (Total Recall) is just a simple summer thrill ride, a piece of family entertainment that seems primarily designed to excite pre-teen boys. One of the more telling liberties that the filmmakers have taken with the Verne novel is to change the gender of the story’s Icelandic guide. She’s now a sexy blond babe, played by Icelandic actress Anita Briem (The Tudors). Early in the movie, the 13-year-old turns to Brendan Fraser’s character and says, “I’ve got dibs on the tour guide,” setting the tone for a mildly flirtatious competition between the uncle and his nephew. At the earth’s core, it gets really, really hot. So by the third act, Anita Briem has stripped down to short shorts and a skimpy top. And as everyone gets wet, first with sweat then with lashings of rain, the movie turns into a bit of a wet t-shirt contest. Brendan Fraser, whose breasts have almost as much definition as Briem’s, could be contestants in a wet T-shirt contest. Equal opportunity nipples. But maybe that was just the 3D talking.

Some audiences will be seeing the movie in 2D. There just aren’t enough digital cinemas yet to project 3D—just 41 across Canada. I saw Journey in 3D, and the technical quality of the new stereoscopic cinema is pretty impressive. But it’s more satisfying in the quieter panoramas than in the “gotcha!” gimmickry of trying to poke us in the eye with various phallic protrusions—from a retractable tape measure to a man-eating plant. In fact, in the rapid-action sequences, the 3D visuals tends to disintegrate. More impressive than the monsters, which seem hokey, are the sets, which were created on a soundstage in Montreal.

Despite being constantly upstaged by special effects, the actors are all very watchable. Canadian actor Brendan Fraser seems to have found his niche as an unthreatening, kid-friendly action hero—more soft and cuddly camp counsellor than macho warrior. Hutcherson has the smart-alec charm of a young Michael J. Fox. And Briem. . . well, she’s the perfect starter babe to initiate young boys into a lifetime of lusting after women twenty thousand leagues out of their league.


The Wackness

It sounds like a caricature of the kind of movie that scores at Sundance — a quirky American indie drama/comedy with a hip hop soundtrack about a young and naive New York misfit who sells drugs to his shrink and falls in love with the therapist’s stepdaughter. You can just imagine the writer-director making the pitch. But for the most part, this second feature from AFI grad Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) wins us over with an emotional veracity that nimbly sidesteps cliché. Levine insists that, unlike his protagonist, he did not sell drugs to finance his college education, but admits there is a dose of memoir in his script, which is very specifically set in 1994 New York City, at a time when then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was beginning to crack down on fun and games in Manhattan.

What’s best about The Wackness, and makes it worth seeing, is Josh Peck’s performance in the lead role of Luke, an awkward but street-savvy kid who deals marijuana from an ice-cream cart. It’s a fanciful set up. You can’t imagine a student wheeling an ice-cream cart crammed with a fortune in pot around Manhattan’s parks without getting busted or robbed. But Peck’s character rings true and is utterly engaging. In the role of the shrink’s stepdaughter, Olivia Thirlby (Juno) is well cast as a free spirit who sends his head spinning with her superior sexual experience. The one false note in the cast is Sir Ben Kingsley, who brings an excess of actorly mannerisms to his role as Dr. Squires, the psychiatrist who serves as our hero’s client and mentor. And maybe this is just the over-sensitive boomer critic speaking, but while the younger characters seem authentic, Kingsley’s superannuated hippie shrink is an amalgam of counter-culture clichés, even if he does zinger lines of advice: “Never trust anyone who doesn’t smoke pot and doesn’t like Bob Dylan,” he tells Luke, after advising him to “get your heart broken” and “make a mess of your life.”

For a movie about sex, drugs and cultural values, this movie is refreshingly free of moral finger-wagging. Although the protagonist deals soft drugs, the filmmaker is not judgmental about it, only about the shrink’s addictive self-medication with pharmaceuticals. The Wackness is as funny, touching story of a summer romance. And despite Kingsley’s overripe performance, it’s also a thoughtful portrait of a father-son bond that is forged between two lost generations—expressed through an exchange of mix tapes. And, of course, there’s a killer soundtrack.


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