I stumbled out of Hellboy II: The Golden Army feeling as if my imagination had eaten too much. In terms of sheer spectacle and visual invention, Hellboy II is an absolute knockout, frames stuffed with bizarre creatures and mystic runes and arcane weaponry and wondrous design. And yet, Hellboy II has more than a little heart to it; it's scrappy and self-aware, and never out of touch with what it is. Adapting Mike Mignola's post-superhero retro-styled comic series Hellboy for the second time, writer-director Guillermo del Toro corrects some of the mistakes of the first Hellboy, makes a few mistakes of its own, picks itself up, keeps going. And, on the way, knocks the back of your eyeballs for a loop. As our British friends say, Hellboy II: The Golden Army does what it says on the tin: It is a sequel about a character named Hellboy (Ron Perlman), and yes, an army of golden warrior-robots is involved, the mystical weapon of mass destruction that the elf-prince Nuada (Luke Goss) hopes to seize control of so as to wage war against humanity ... I know I'm getting ahead of myself. Then again, so does Hellboy II, right from the jump, and it doesn't slow down.

And it's exactly that giddy, goofy momentum that keeps Hellboy II moving. You get the epic war at the dawn of time between man and the mystic world shown with stop-motion as your prologue; later, you get a drunken sing-a-long to the strains of Barry Manilow. You get a big-finish fight scene that feels like a big-finish fight scene, but you also get a Three Stooges sequence played out with paranormal powers. Did you see the first Hellboy? Yeah, well, this is like that one, but better. And Universal (which bought the rights to the franchise from Sony) is making a leap of faith that everyone who brought a ticket to Hellboy or saw it on cable will want to see a second installment on the big screen.

If you want to see Hellboy II -- and again, I'd wager that if you haven't seen Hellboy, you're not reading this -- you'll enjoy it, and you should see it on the big screen. There are moments here that stun and amaze, like when our hero Hellboy (played with the right combination of manly presence, tough-guy machismo and self-deprecating humor by Ron Perlman) leads his team of paranormal trouble-shooters to a secret under-place called the troll market, hidden beneath the shadows of many worlds and located under the Brooklyn Bridge. The troll market may be the most dizzying overdose of fantastic place-setting since Luke and Obi-Wan cruised into Mos Eisley and walked into the cantina.

But, to del Toro's credit, you also get a sense of the people in that place, too. The tour of the troll market sequence not only follows evil Prince Nuada's trail as he seeks the crown that will control the golden army, but also as Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) talk about how they have to talk. (Hellboy knows she's upset, but can't figure out why; Liz, a pyrokinetic paranormal investigator, Hellboy's girlfriend and team-mate, has some big news. ) At the same time, fish-man-walking Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) is tailing a mysterious blonde -- who happens to be the sister of Prince Nuada, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who's fleeing with the final part of the shattered crown her brother will need to make whole before he can raise the golden army against man's plague. ...


Poppycock? Yes, and well-played. Hellboy II's got flesh-eating fairies, gods and monsters, crypto-fascist kung-fu elves and clockwork killing machines lit with eldritch fire; it knocks off cop shows and Victorian adventure tales and John Woo's Hard Boiled and gets in jokes like the news anchor who asks, inspired by Liz and Hellboy's relationship, "Inter-species marriage -- is it a threat to traditional marriage?" It has a cool new supporting character, the disembodied busy-body bureaucrat Johann Kraus (voiced by Seth McFarlane in mock-Teutonic tones out of Danny Kaye or Mel Brooks), who is as much a supporting character as he is cool and new.

The plotline and transitions are still a little lumpy, but less so than last time; the bad guys and their plan are far better defined, and drive the film far more firmly than Hellboy's faceless bland baddies. And del Toro and his effects team bring the freaky in every possible way; it has demon-on-robot fist-fight action and ravenous little scurrying terrors that go for your bones, first; it's got winged messengers of death and a verdant, violent earth elemental rising above the streets of Brooklyn. But even with that sensory overload and tumbling avalanche of ideas, you can't say that del Toro doesn't try, sincerely, to give you plot and character connections to string into a lifeline to get through the storm, or provide a little blinking moment of bizarre fun or style to light the way.

Is Hellboy II all sound and fury, signifying nothing, or, worse, nerdiness? Quite possibly, but it's got the heart that the slick Wanted lacks, the brute you can root for that The Incredible Hulk didn't quite give us, and more geeky slapdash fun than the shiny-fast Iron Man and a better mix of effective story and special effects than Speed Racer -- and if Hellboy II signifies nothing, well, at least there's a hell of a lot of it. Like all sequels, Hellboy II's a bit overstuffed, but I can't also say what you would lose; the fat provides a lot of the flavor. And I never felt transported to another world or invested in the characters past their four-color surfaces, even as del Toro's sights and wonders put me in a lookitthat! state of nerd-vana. And the finale sets up places to go for the series, even if it doesn't conclusively make us crave that; as much as del Toro's the only man for that hypothetical job, I'd rather see him making his own films, which is part of why I'm so unenthused by the prospect of his version of The Hobbit. I don't know if I need a Hellboy III, but Hellboy II feels like a summertime comic-book movie that doesn't want, or need, to be a blockbuster movie and instead simply and sincerely succeeds as a great matinee.