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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Spawn

Starring: Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo
Director: Mark Dippe
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 97 Minutes
Release Date: August 1997
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Martin Sheen, Theresa Randle, Nicol Williamson, D.B. Sweeney

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1.  MrBrown review follows movie reviewmovie review
2.  Walter Frith read the review movie reviewmovie review

Review by MrBrown
2 stars out of 4

Todd McFarlane's comic book sensation Spawn is prime fodder for a big-budget Hollywood movie treatment--there's a extravagantly costumed, supernaturally powered, sometimes homicidal hero, resurrected from the dead, whose primary enemy is none other than the devil himself. After years of topping comic sales charts, Spawn has indeed arrived to conquer the movie arena, but something is seriously lacking; for all its visual razzle dazzle, Mark Dippe's film is a mess--a misguided attempt to sanitize a concept whose most distinctive trait is its darkness.

To Dippe and scripter Alan McElroy's credit, McFarlane's basic conceit remains intact: Spawn (Michael Jai White) was originally murdered government agent Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) who makes a pact with the devil to see beloved wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) one more time. In return, however, he must use his newfound supernatural powers to lead Hell's Army in its quest to destroy Heaven and Earth. Prodding Spawn into serving holding up his end of the bargain is the Clown (John Leguizamo, having a ball in a fat suit and heavy makeup), whose short, rotund exterior hides his true, horrific self as the demonic Violator; urging him to rebel against the dark side is Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), a mysterious figure from the distant past.

The above is a fairly accurate distillation of comic's basics, but the Spawn faithful know there is something deeper and richer behind the plot fundamentals--an overwhelming sense of despair and anguish. Spawn has a great costume, some nifty powers, and a killer instinct, but the key to the character is his emotional torment. Al's passionate love for Wanda is what drives him and also what cripples him. Merely seeing her is not enough, and being with her is an impossibility--not only because he's a severely burned undead hellspawn but because she has gone on with her life. Adding to his angst is the fact that in the five years that have passed between his death and rebirth, Wanda is remarried with a daughter, Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin), and her new husband is none other than Al's best friend, Terry Fitzgerald (D.B. Sweeney, putting a Caucasian face on a what is originally an African-American character).

For reasons only known to him, the intense emotional content that McElroy successfully incorporated into the Spawn HBO animated series (which, I may add, is a much more satisfying translation) is all but completely absent in his script for the film. The only hints at Spawn's torment are a couple of anguished cries of "Wanda," and the rest of the time--which is nearly all of the time--he's merely angry and vengeful, no different from some heroes in any number of generic action films. The dilution of the emotion--and, in McElroy's most offensive move, having the normally brooding Spawn utter a couple of lame _one-liners_--are obvious attempts to make the character fit a more traditional mold and hence win an audience-friendly PG-13 rating. But this decision makes no sense, since it's Spawn's untraditional, dark, R-rated nature that made him so interesting to begin with.

Dippe, making his feature directorial debut, is a seasoned special effects creator, so it should come as no surprise that Spawn is most impressive and imaginative--and most faithful--in the visual arena. The jarring opening credits, complete with shaky, distorted lettering and nearly subliminal glimpses of images, is highly reminiscent of Se7en's unsettling main titles (which is a good thing). The creative transitions between scenes, such as having flames and capes wipe across the frame, effectively recall the visual style of the comic, as do the characters' appearances. The Clown and his demonic alter ego, the Violator, are every bit as repellent in three-dimensions as they are on the page (even if, as part of the PG-13 compromise, he does not perform any of his trademark heart extractions), and Spawn is blessed with a wonderfully fluid, computer-generated cape, which, unfortunately, only materializes from time to time. McFarlane has said that the cape's sporadic appearance in the film (Spawn has his cape at all times in the comic and animated series) was a conscious decision, so Spawn would look less "superhero-y." Ironically, though, he looks more conventional without it. The true marvel is Dippe and visual effects supervisor Steve "Spaz" Williams's vision of hell, a stunningly organic blend of flame and rock--a true technical achievement.

But that's the problem with Dippe's direction as a whole--it's _too_ technical. Attention was paid to the visuals and little else. The story, involving a biological weapon developed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, all clenched teeth), the shady government agent responsible for Al's death, is weak and doesn't make complete sense; even the action scenes are clumsily handled, especially the climactic battle in hell, where the heavy editing makes the action hard to follow. But worst of all, there's no passion--no real connection to the characters (no fault to White or the other actors, who aren't really given much to work with in the script), no sense of urgency to the tale. The film is a feast for the eyes, yes, but there's none of the soul that gives the comic its power.

In its comic and animated form, Spawn pushes the creative envelope; in this live-action, big-screen incarnation, Spawn plays it safe--much too safe; so safe that I'm certain people being introduced to Spawn with this movie will wonder just what all the fuss is about. At a recent comic book convention, producer Clint Goldman said with much confidence and certainty, "There _will_ be a sequel." Here's hoping that next time around the filmmakers will take a lesson from its hero in the comic and go for the kill.

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