Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Spawn (USA 1997)

The debut film of Mark A. Z. Dippé, a filmmaker who you have probably never heard of but who went on seven years later to make the fabulously titled Frankenfish (2004 / trailer). Currently, 13 years after Dippé's film version of Todd McFarlane’s popular comic character failed to make a lot of waves, a sequel—the eponymously named Spawn II—is in the works to revive and reimage a film franchise that never was. A good time as any to take a look at the first flick, the one that bombed...
Government assassin Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is weary of his job, unable to see what good it brings and tired of taking out too many innocent bystanders when fulfilling his contracts. Sent by his boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) on one last job, Simmons gets double-crossed, with both his boss and rival assassin Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke) showing up on site not only to kill him but to make sure he knows who did it. (Typically comic book plotting: The Big Boss showing up at a location he would never go to just to have one last gloat over the man he is out to kill.) Wynn has long since made a deal with the devil, promising to release a deadly, incurable virus so as to hasten the end of the world. In hell, Simmons also makes a deal with the evil one, promising to eventually lead the armies of darkness in exchange for being able to return to earth. Back on earth as a burnt monster four or five years after his original death, Spawn slowly masters the superpowers of his cape and “necro-flesh” as he sets out to revenge himself against Wynn. All the while, as the evil Clown (John Leguizamo) constantly intrigues between the two, forever trying to get Armageddon rolling, the tired but good protector of earth Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) attempts to get Spawn to choose the path of righteousness, to take his place in the fight against evil.....

Providing the viewer is not the type of person that hates caped superheroes, and despite all the bad word of mouth by disappointed fans, those less familiar with Todd McFarlane’s comic character upon which the film is based—and thus unhampered by any expectations—will find Spawn a somewhat predictably plotted but nonetheless visually exciting film that took full advantage of everything that computer animation had to offer in 1997. Although the film really doesn’t make that much sense, its pervading visual styling goes a long way in making it enjoyable; the few minutes added to “The Director’s Cut”—or whatever you want to call the R-rated version—don’t really add much more to the film other than a bit more violence.
Fun and entertaining, Spawn suffers only from a trite plot and script that has all the depth, logic and development of the most generic comic book of the late Bronze Age. But then, in the original comics Spawn had issues and issues to develop and grow as a character, whereas the film has but only 98 minutes. The combined scriptural involvement of McFarlane and co-scripter Alan B. McElroy—the latter being the writing talent behind Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988 / trailer) and Wrong Turn (2003 / trailer)—weren’t enough to give much substance to their material or prune it of clichés.
These flaws, however, are well balanced by the faith the director and cast appear to have had in their material. Everyone involved, from the director down to the actors, seem to be giving all they’ve got—which sometimes isn’t very much—and that helps carry the film past many a normally unforgivable plotting sin. John Leguizamo as The Clown excels, his obnoxious talkativeness fitting the character perfectly, allowing him to spit one tasteless one-liner after the other more quickly than Lori Petty in Tank Girl (1994 / trailer). (Gotta love that maggot-eating scene—what an actor won’t do today. Remember when John Waters had to substitute raisins for cockroaches in Desperate Living [1977 / trailer]? Those days seem over with forever—though it is still doubtful a mainstream actor will ever go the extremes that Divine did in Pink Flamingoes [1972 / trailer].)
Former cult sex-pot Melinda Clarke flits across the screen much too briefly as Jessica Priest, doing another one of those sexy, S&M-tinged characterizations that she looks perfect for. Perhaps she isn’t really as much fun as she is in The Killer Tongue (1996 / trailer), in which she sports a deadly, possessed and talking tongue, but her early departure in Spawn is nonetheless lamentable. Martin Sheen tries hard to achieve a level of camp nastiness as Jason Wynn, and though he is fun enough to watch, he hardly comes close to being half as fun as, say, Treat Williams in The Phantom (1996 / trailer).

In the end, Spawn is an example of a perfectly entertaining but generic comic book adaptation, but due to its somewhat larger-than-normal budget and game actors nonetheless delivers more than what might be expected.

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