Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Review: Spawn (1997)

    Look upon the nineties and despair…

    Spawn is something of a curious footnote: an original character who became almost as popular as Batman and Superman for a while there, and made creator Todd McFarlane so rich he was able to buy Mark McGuire’s then record-breaking baseballs for nearly $3 million (hindsight is 20/20). That popularity peaked in 1997 when Spawn was brought kicking and screaming to the multiplexes in a summer season which also saw the release of Batman & Robin and Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel (be glad you don‘t remember that one)… Which pretty much killed the superhero movie for a while there. Boasting an impressive cast and made by New Line Cinema with close input from McFarlane himself, it would have been okay to anticipate Spawn when it was first announced. That is, until you actually see the movie, and realize that it’s maybe a good thing that the nineties become more and more a distant memory with each passing year…

    Spawn tells the story of government assassin Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), who is betrayed and murdered by his boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), who’s got his own convoluted world domination scheme involving a deadly new virus attached to a pacemaker designed to go off if his heart stops beating (wait- what?). Anyway, Simmons goes to Hell and makes a deal with the Satan-but-not-really Malebolgia, who offers to return him back to his wife if he’ll lead the armies of Hell against Heaven in the battle of Armageddon. Not really the most forward-thinking individual, Simmons accepts, and finds himself back on the Earthly plane with charred skin and some kind of nebulous supersuit which grants him powers as they are convenient to the script. Now dubbing himself Spawn, Simmons has to choose between the cartoon devil and angel standing on his shoulders and decide whether or not he fights against his Hellish masters or continues moping in some studio dressed to look like an alleyway commune for homeless people and former Knights Templar.

    If Spawn gives us anything, it’s Michael Jai White’s career as a leading man (although he’s only a leading man these days in DTV action junk). White is pretty decent throughout, even under the mounds of burnt-face makeup - at the time, he was probably the best choice for the role. The rest of the cast ranges from fun to terrible, with Martin Sheen as a standout. He’s there for the paycheck, but Sheen growls and smokes his way through the picture as the villainous Jason Wynn. Also fun to watch is the best Merlin ever, Nicol Williamson as the good angel on Spawn’s shoulder, Cogliostro. Cogliostro is a former hellspawn himself, a knight from the fifteenth century who found himself in the same position as Simmons. I learned all of this not from the movie, but from Cogliostro’s Wikipedia page, which should tell you all you need to know. Still, Williamson is always a delight, and this was his last movie.

    Not so delightful is John Leguizamo as Clown, a portly demon from Hell who is no way, shape or form inspired by the Joker (I’m also sure his dodgy CGI antics had nothing to do with Jim Carrey’s The Mask). Leguizamo endured hours of makeup and had to film all of his scenes crouching down in a fat-suit, so for that he has my respect, but Clown wears out his welcome almost as soon as he arrives, tossing out fart jokes and celebrity impersonations like candy on Halloween - not to mention the utterly baffling scene where he dresses up like a cheerleader to cheer Spawn on to lead the armies of Satan. Or something.

    All of this might have been salvageable had the film itself been any fun to watch, but Spawn is a dark, dreary bore. It’s amateur hour for first-time director Mark AZ Dippe, who manages to be derivative of just about every dark, Nu-Metal video made at the time - even throwing in awful scene transitions with fiery wipes and the like. The effects are even worse: in spite of KNB’s best efforts in providing a nifty, practical Spawn suit, the film is packed with some of the worst ones and zeros ever committed to film, most noticeable in the many scenes featuring Spawn’s impossibly large cape. I could go on and on describing the film’s problems, like the addition of not one, but two plucky kids (and a dog); or some obvious last-minute ADR work to string together disconnected scenes of special effects; or by having the climax of the film take place in the living room of a suburban house, etc, etc…   

    It’s a severely dumb movie released in a decade where dumb movies were the order of the day. Let’s be completely honest here: the best thing to come out of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn were the toys.


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