'Hellboy II: Golden Army'

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When is a big studio picture not a big studio picture? MWhen we're talking Universal's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" and the filmmaker happens to be Guillermo del Toro.

Armed with a slightly bigger budget than his 2004 original and with more clout after the Oscar-nominated success of "Pan's Labyrinth," del Toro's latest take on the Mike Mignola comic book is uncompromisingly the product of his wildly fantastical imagination.

Playing it faster and looser if somewhat less focused than the first "Hellboy," the Los Angeles Film Festival's official closer (neatly bookending with the curtain-raiser "Wanted") should have no problem building on the $100 million-plus its predecessor grossed internationally when it officially enters the summer derby July 11.

Of course, just how much more will depend on how the fanboys will feel about sequences like Red and Abe drunkenly singing along to Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You."

With the origin story out of the way, del Toro wastes little time in getting down to business. When a long-standing truce between the underground-dwelling original sons of the Earth and humankind is broken by Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), the rebellious son of King Balor (Ron Perlman's old "Beauty and the Beast" co-star Roy Dotrice), something must be done to prevent him from re-awakening the killing machines known as the Golden Army.

Enter the terrific Perlman's cigar-chomping, Tecate-chugging Red, who's been shacking up with the pyrokinetic Liz (an effectively brooding Selma Blair) in his pad over at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

Also back to save the day is the aquatic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, now also doing the vocals that last time were handled by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce) as well as long-suffering B.P.R.D. bureaucrat Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor).

Joining the highly dysfunctional family is the Germanic Johann Krauss (John Alexander and James Dodd) a protoplasmic robot who constantly gets in Red's face.

With writer-director del Toro given free license to go where his singular vision takes him, "Hellboy II" plays like Guillermo's Greatest Hits with even hotter visual effects — Liz's engulfing flames have come a long way in four years — and a winking nod to "The Wizard of Oz" tossed into the crazy mix for good measure.
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