Sunday, April 7, 2013

Big Effects, Ill-Executed, Spawn Underwhelms!

The Good: Interesting concept, Fairly good plot
The Bad: Many of the character aspects make little sense, Mediocre special effects, Works too hard to be dramatic as opposed to, “Mechanics.”
The Basics: Unfortunately erratic, Spawn feels rushed and less compelling than it ought to be.

I like atypical superhero and graphic novel-based movies. In fact, one of my all-time favorite films is Watchmen (reviewed here!). So, if anything, I was biased in favor of Spawn when I sat down to watch the film this morning. Back in college, I had a good friend who loved Spawn, both the book and the movie. I missed the film in theaters and I decided to watch the film now because I was somewhat surprised that a film that featured Martin Sheen and had the potential for franchise never made a sequel.

Is there nothing Martin Sheen can’t make better? Spawn is not inherently bad and there are elements – like seeing Sheen stretch his range to play a megalomaniacal businessman – that are genuinely decent in the film that features comparatively primitive computer-generated special effects. Conceptually, Spawn feels fresh and different and the only thing similar that has followed it was Constantine (reviewed here!), which was not as ambitious in terms of creature design.

The devil, Malebolgia, wants to turn Earth into a repository of death to harvest more souls. Al Simmons, who is working for Jason Wynn – an evil industrialist with plans to seize power – as an assassin, is smoked by Wynn and his other trained killer, Jessica Priest. Wynn, who is working for a minion of the devil, the Clown, kills Simmons at the Clown’s orders and Simmons, with his dying breath, cries out to his wife, Wanda. Burned and disfigured, Simmons returns to Earth (a sort of parole) to check in on his wife. As a deal with the Malebolgia, Simmons can try to keep Wanda safe if he leads the devil’s army and kills Jason Wynn.

Manipulated into creating a lethal biotoxin, Jason Wynn plans to hold the world hostage until all the businesses and governments join his consortium. Simmons, reborn as the devil’s mercenary, Spawn, returns to Earth and discovers his wife is not together with the man who had been his driver. Targeting Jason Wynn at a gathering, Spawn makes an auspicious entrance and kills Wynn’s replacement assassin, Jessica Priest. Trying to save his family, Spawn finds himself in a war against both Wynn and the Clown (who is soon revealed to be an exceptionally powerful demon). To ensure his plans for world domination come to fruition, Wynn inserts a trigger device in his own heart, tying to detonators around the world which will release his E-16 virus. Trained by a rebel against the devil’s forces, Spawn must choose between working for the forces of darkness or humanity.

Conceptually, the biggest issue with Spawn is that the character of Spawn is supposed to be a soulless minion of the devil. Soulless creatures shouldn’t be tied to anything from their mortal life, at least not with the care that would lead them to betray the force of all evil in the world. So, the fact that Al Simmons seems willing to kill people in his mortal life and then dies in such a way that the Clown and Malebolgia are able to keep him from recalling that he had turned a corner and no longer wanted to be such a ruthless operator, that he would not actually be as invested in saving Wanda and Earth, especially after he sees Wanda with Terry.

Most people are likely to have issues with the CG-effects in Spawn, but they are the by-product of the times. They are not great, by any means, but some of the effects that could have been the most devastatingly cheesy – like the morph of the Clown into Violator – are actually executed with remarkable skill. In fact, Spawn’s chain-weapon and armor looks great. In fact, the only real problem with the effects in Spawn are that they are erratically executed. Some sequences look amazing, others look primitive (and why doesn’t Malebolgia’s mouth move?!).

On the acting front, Martin Sheen does his usual good job. He is credible as the villainous Jason Wynn. D.B. Sweeney is stiff as Terry (horrible delivery in his last time on screen!), but he and Theresa Randle (Wanda) have good on-screen chemistry. John Leguizamo plays the Clown well-enough. The character is annoying, but Leguizamo makes the creepy, unsettling, and seldom actually funny character seem viable and truly menacing. Given that, especially at the time, Leguizamo was known for humor roles and had achieved on that merit, that he could effectively play an unsettling villain is a decent stretch.

Much of the film’s acting comes down to the talents of Michael Jai White, who plays Al Simmons/Spawn. White is good, but he spends much of the time obscured by burn make-up and armor which inhibits his abilities to emote using his facial expressions. This might not be so unfortunate, save that often his eyes are obscured at least and he loses his emotional resonance as he growls through many of his lines. He is adequate to the task, but he fails to life the character of Spawn up to any truly heroic levels.

On DVD, Spawn comes with a commentary track, a few featurettes (making-of and one on the books upon which the film is based) and the trailers for the film and the animated series. They are decent bonus features.

Spawn is a take-it or leave-it comic book film and while I enjoyed it, it was a much harder sell than the concept should have been. Director Mark A.Z. Dippe must bear some of the blame; the film is shot, edited and uses music to try to maximize the sense of drama and it comes across as melodramatic as a result. In other words, instead of being epic and sweeping and menacing and grand, Dippe cheats and uses music and cuts the film in a way that seems to want to say, “See here! This is cool! Look now, it’s awesome!” This is unfortunate and leaves the viewer wishing that the film had the substance and consistency to back up those “tags.”

For other films based on comic books or graphic novels, please check out my reviews of:
The Batman Anthology


For other movie reviews, please visit my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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