Del Toro's Golden Touch Illuminates 'Hellboy II'

In "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (* * * out of four), the giant crimson daredevil is a snarky bad-boy superhero taunted and misunderstood by the masses. This weekend, the cigar-chomping, beer-swilling big guy faces off with another reviled superhero: Hancock.

Hellboy wins pretty much hands down.

With director Guillermo del Toro's fantastical vision on overdrive tempered by an occasionally self-mocking sense of humor, this "Hellboy" sequel is a quintessential summer movie that delivers plenty of inventive thrills.

The action is well-paced, the production design striking and the creatures and special effects spectacular. Del Toro is an extraordinary visual stylist who creates monsters that stay in our heads and haunt our reveries long after the credits run. Who can forget the saggy, pallid creature from Pan's Labyrinth whose eyes resided in its hands?

Similarly freakish and fascinating beings populate Hellboy. The film's main drawback, however, is their multiplicity. A barrage of mind-blowing beings borders on overkill. One longs to concentrate on maybe half a dozen weird creatures. But the movie is filled to the peripheries with frighteningly odd characters. This is particularly true of the segment at the "Troll Market", which brings to mind the "Star War"s cantina crossed with bustling Diagon Alley from "Harry Potter".

In this installment, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) must battle the malevolent Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, who looks like a scarred version of Potter's Lucius Malfoy). At Hellboy's side are his Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development colleagues, an array that includes his fiery girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and the robotic/aquatic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones).

While the various action sequences are exciting, an early one with swarms of voracious tooth fairies drags on.

Still, "Hellboy II" is highly imaginative and consistently amusing without pretensions.

A highlight is a vivid duel with Hellboy battling a giant forest creature while cradling a baby, either in one of his giant mitts or curled up in his tail. In fact, infants figure intriguingly into this movie.

The next sequel just might be "Hellbaby: Devil Flambé." (Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Opens at midnight tonight in select theaters and Friday nationwide.)