The director Guillermo del Toro loves creatures. Big, squishy mutants and dreamy monsters. Otherworldly tentacled zomboid beasties. He's a master at creating them, a talent that I would not hesitate to call childlike; it's also a gift well-suited to our era. Del Toro can win awards for a highbrow Night Gallery episode like Pan's Labyrinth, with its fantastical images and fascism-is-bad message, and he can then turn around and make a hard-driving psychedelic action-movie fantasia like Hellboy II: The Golden Army, about a domesticated devil hulk and his superfreak comrades.
In Hellboy II, del Toro pushes his fetish for all things weird and shape-shifty to the extreme; he makes us feel childlike, too. You can taste the ripeness of his imagination when you see the new addition to the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense team: a German scientist named Johann Krauss, who consists entirely of...gas. (He lives in a robot suit, to give the fumes some form, and his voice is provided by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane, for that hint of Hogan's Heroes kitsch.)
Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the stogie-sucking demon of a crime fighter, with his sawed-off underworld horns and mighty stone edifice of a giant right fist, is now plunged into a cosmic culture war. An ancient race, led by the pasty scoundrel Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, in a performance that suggests Marilyn Manson played by Tilda Swinton), has declared a holy war on all of humanity. To achieve his apocalyptic vision, Nuada must gather the three sections of a mystical crown, which will activate the Golden Army, a phalanx of clanking medieval robots, each with a chest cavity full of glowing industrial fire.
That's quite an image of sinister magic, and Hellboy II has a lot more of them. The plot is really a fancy excuse for del Toro to keep forging his close encounters of the squirmy kind. New York gets attacked by a giant plant-monster (it has the head of a praying mantis and vines for limbs), which would have looked right at home in a '50s atomic-schlock horror film, and in Ireland there's a warlock gatekeeper who reveals a face that's a blade of flesh as well as wings speckled with eyes, an image to give Salvador Dalí pause. The film's digital-effects artists deserve props, but what makes a creature feature like Hellboy II so much more exciting than, say, The Incredible Hulk is that del Toro's inventions don't just have ''attitude.'' They have temperament. Their personalities seem to have emerged right out of their skewed, fairy-tale-on-acid physiognomies.
That's true of the movie's heroes as well. Hellboy, with his skin the color of tandoori chicken, has a red-hot temper to match, and Perlman, who's even funnier more grumpily assured than he was in the first Hellboy, has mastered a tone of self-deprecatory wise-guy blues; if you can forget how he looks, he sounds like George Clooney after a rough night. Hellboy's sad comedy is his deep-down normalcy the fact that no one sees past his facade. No one, that is, but Liz (Selma Blair), the outwardly normal girl who loves him because she's got some major hellfire of her own: She ignites like a human cigarette lighter, and Blair, glaring through those orange flames, lets you know that she's as angry as that fire is. Abe Sapien, the epicene British gill-man played with courtly grace by Doug Jones, has been given a love interest the evil prince's twin sister (Anna Walton) which only heightens his anachronistic pained delicacy. When he and Hellboy sing a lonely, drunken duet to Barry Manilow's ''Can't Smile Without You,'' it's a priceless moment, because it's really tweaking the hidden torment of every superhero in history.
The Paranormal Research and Defense team is basically a kinkier version of the X-Men crew or the Fantastic Four, but in Hellboy II their collective oddity familiar though it is has an appealing, outsize grandeur. If the movie's plot is mostly comic-book boilerplate, del Toro stages all of the action brilliantly, whether he's choreographing an onslaught of skittery, spidery face-huggers or tracing the rhythmic, thrusting assault of flying swords. The Golden Army dazzles like something out of Jason and the Argonauts. To make a comic-book fantasy this derivative yet this dazzling requires more than technique. It takes a director in touch with his inner hellboy. B+