(This review originally appeared in the August 7-13, 1997 Long Island Voice.)
Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
In this unprecedented summer of comic book-based films, Batman & Robin may have the glitz and the expensive, higher profile cast, but Spawn is better and more faithful to the original. Message to Joel Schumacher: It's the story, stupid.
Al Simmons is an operative for a CIA-like organization called A6. But the love of a good woman and distaste for too many innocent casualties causes him to turn in his resignation to agency head Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen). About the only real plot flaw is Al agreeing to take one final mission after Wynn warns him about retiring. Of course, its a set up to test a new weapon, Heat-16, and to retire Al permanently, leaving his wife Wanda a widow.
The trick is killing Al isnt Wynns idea. Rather Clown, a demonic agent Wynn has been working with, demands Als death because the demon Malebolgia needs a general to lead Hells army to the gates of Heaven. In Hell, Al is offered a deal: Lead the army and he can see his beloved Wanda. Already damned, Al takes the deal not realizing that five years will have passed and Wanda has married Terry, his former partner, and had a daughter. Plus, hes an animated, charred corpse, so he has no hope of regaining Wanda. Clown then plays Wynn and Al, now dubbed "Spawn" for "Hellspawn," against each other in an attempt to destroy the earth and hasten Armageddon.
Attempting to counter Clown and turn Spawn away from vengeance is Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), who knows a great deal about the transformation Spawn has gone through. He tries to convince Spawn that though his powers derive from Hell, they dont have to be used for evil and even Spawn has a slim hope of redemption.
The charismatic Michael Jai White stars as Spawn and he brings a weight to the role that is essential to its credibility. John Leguizemo is unrecognizable as Clown and has a field day as the gross, twistedly funny demon. I originally imagined Danny DeVito for the role, but Leguizemo blows that idea away. The scene in the gym is a particularly bizarre and amusing tension breaker. Sheen and Williamson are two serious actors you might not imagine for these roles, but their talent brings the film up a notch from the average action film, and Sheen seems to be having a hell of a good time.
The special effects by innovative Industrial Light & Magic left me mixed feelings. On one level, they were amazing with a near 3-D effect to the Hell scenes. On the other, it looked a touch like a state-of-the-art video game. I couldnt decide if that was distracting or not. Spawns cape, however, was perfect. Next to Batman, Spawn probably has cloak the best-known for flowing in impossibly intimidating ways. Plus, Spawns is even longer because since its a part of him, like his armor, he doesnt have to worry about tripping on it. ILM did the cloak totally computer generated, and it is awesome. It flows around him and transforms as if the comic book truly did come to life.
As a story and a character, Spawn is incredibly complex, and I feared it might be "dumbed down" by Hollywood. A few minor points are simplified, but overall Spawn does an excellent job of capturing the Als torment rather than making him just another vigilante. The only problem is the PG-13 rating. While Spawn is incredibly popular with kids, parts may be too gross for younger kids.
A New Line Cinema release. Directed by Mark Dippé.
Accompanying photographs © 1997 New Line Cinema