Spawn

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Director Mark A.Z. Dippé, 1997.
Starring Michael Jai White, Jon Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, Nicol Williamson, Melinda Clarke, Theresa Randle.
96 mins.

When Black Ops assassin Al Simmons is murdered by his boss, he is resurrected after making a deal with the demon Malebolgia – in return for seeing his wife again, he will become Spawn, leader of an evil army…

1997 WAS THE all-time nadir for superhero movies. In cinemas, Batman & Robin bought the caped crusader’s screen success to a screeching halt. Basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal starred in Steel, a movie that’s been practically forgotten altogether. On television, Justice League of America was so misjudged it was never even broadcast. But the worst of the lot is Spawn, a genre low point that at best is a dodgy special effects reel, and at worst is a tasteless, incoherent mess.

Undeniably, Spawn sticks admirably to it’s source material. The original comic, published in 1992, was aimed at those who though Batman and Spider-Man and co were too nice, offering instead a demonic caped hero with no compunction about extreme violence – and that was before he even gained his powers. Equipt with ‘necroplasmic’ battle suit which can morph into all kinds of vicious weapons, massive guns, and an endless thirst for vengeance, Spawn is certainly not your father’s superhero. Suffice to say his stories don’t end with him snapping the cuffs on the villains and taking them to jail.

First-time director Mark AZ Dippé’s big screen adaption certainly captures the brooding darkness of the comics – but doesn’t balance it out with any kind of warmth or humanity. The tone is relentlessly negative throughout, and the main characters range from unpleasant to abhorrent. Simmons (Jai White) himself begins the movie as an assassin, and while he cares about his family and befriends a street kid, is hard to sympathise with. Jai White, who spends most of the movie under layers of prosthetics, tries hard but can’t do much with a character whose only emotions are anger, confusion, or both.

Should-be standout effects sequences are notable for all the wrong reasons

Spawn spends interminable amounts of time skulking around grim back alleys tormented by John Leguizamo’s Clown, a vile demon who occasionally transforms into a towering monster. Leguizamo is the only one onscreen who seems to be enjoying himself, but the Clown is so obnoxious he’s hard to watch. The rest of the cast don’t fare much better: Martin Sheen is utterly wasted as Simmon’s backstabbing Black Ops boss, providing no more than one-note beard-stroking villainy. Nicol Williamson does his best to provide some gravelly-voiced gravitas as Simmon’s mystical mentor, but he turns up too late in proceedings to have much effect.

Director Dippé is a special effects veteran with the likes of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park among his impressive credits. Yet the CGI here is surprisingly rather lame; cartoonish and overused, it’s rarely more convincing than Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Should-be standout sequences such as Spawn jumping through a skylight, his cape flapping around him, are notable for all the wrong reasons, and the final battle is like watching a 1995 PlayStation game.

The action scenes are uniformly poor. A motorbike/oil tanker chase is slow and stagey, and battles between Spawn and the Clown’s monstrous alter ego the Violator are just another excuse for CGI overload. It’s also hard to get excited when the rules are never established; if Simmons is dead already – and his armour heals all wounds – is he ever really in any danger? Can he create anything he likes with his armour? And if the Violator can kick Spawn’s ass – and he does – why doesn’t he lead Malebolgia’s army?

It’s a struggle to find anything good to say about Spawn. It’s poorly scripted, it’s overloaded with terrible CGI, and it’s just so unpleasant you’ll want to wash your hands afterwards and listen to the Carpenters. You’re best just watching the last ten seconds – a moody shot of the title character perched on the city rooftops which conveys the iconography of the comic perfectly, the only agreeable part of an otherwise entirely disagreeable film.

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Review by Ulysses Gamma-Hose

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