“Spawn” is a moodily malevolent, anything-goes revenge fantasy that relies more upon special visual and digitally animated effects for its intended appeal than any comics-derived sci-fier to date. Based on Todd McFarlane’s enormously successful comic books, which have already spawned an HBO animated series and a thriving toy line, this narratively knuckleheaded, visually teeming film will appeal to the comics’ abundant fan base as well as to a fair portion of the young and mostly male sci-fi faithful who put “The Fifth Element” into the win column at the beginning of the summer. Traditionalists and older viewers will cringe, but that shouldn’t prevent New Line from reaping a quick reward on its reasonable $45 million production investment.
Pic brandishes any number of elements that, for teenagers, will mark it as edgy and cool: high-tech armor and artillery that put old-fashioned comic book heroes like Batman and Superman to shame; a physically dark, morally relative universe in which there are mostly just degrees of bad, and little good; irreverent and scatological humor; a heavy metal/alternative soundtrack; and, for once, a black superhero who, in this case, has literally gone to hell and back.
At the same time, however, “Spawn” piles on the sensory overload with no compensatory narrative or thematic balance; is numbingly repetitive in its action; features a uniquely unsavory and uninteresting cast of characters; substitutes adolescent vulgarity and obnoxiousness for genuine subversiveness and wit; and, perhaps worst of all, establishes no guidelines as to what its supernaturally gifted characters are capable of, seeming to make up their abilities as it goes along. For anyone not predisposed to locking in to its wavelength, the film is a forbidding, notably unlikable pop culture artifact.
Through a couple of explosive action sequences, first quarter-hour establishes the expertise and ultimate betrayal of U.S. government operative Al Simmons (Michael Jai White, star of HBO’s “Tyson”). On a secret mission to take out a North Korean biological weapons plant, Simmons is blown to smithereens by his boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), who subsequently takes possession of the germ material to establish his bid for individual world domination.
In this world, however, people don’t necessarily die forever, and five years later, a horribly scarred Simmons is given the chance to return to Earth and see his beloved wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) and daughter Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin) if he will lead the Devil’s army to conquer the world. To this end, he is influenced on behalf of the forces of darkness by the repellent, scabarously sarcastic Clown from hell (John Leguizamo, unrecognizable in billowing fat and costumes), just as the venerable conjurer Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) attempts to convince him to accept the assignment in order to eventually turn the tables on Satan.
All of this is presented in a dramatically muddled way in Alan McElroy’s screenplay, which has Simmons, now transformed into the armor-plated, physically superhuman Spawn, quickly get on the trail of the nefarious Wynn, who himself is in league with the malignant Clown. Threatened with Spawn’s vengeance, Wynn undergoes an operation that represents the supreme manifestation of tyrannical ego: He has a device implanted so that deadly bacteria will be released worldwide, killing everyone, should his heart stop beating.
As the story, such as it is, moves along, punctuated throughout by fancy wipes and transitions, one could be excused for increasingly losing one’s bearings, since the goal posts keep being moved by the filmmakers for their own convenience. Some wounds heals, others don’t; some characters seem to die, and while some do, others are able to bounce back; spatial and temporal relativity is played with willy-nilly, and nothing much ultimately seems to make any difference. Even the fate of the rightfully aggrieved, righteously motivated Simmons/Spawn gets lost in the unholy stew, to the point that any human engagement in his mission is an afterthought.
The filmmakers here, including first-time director Mark A.Z. Dippe, producer Clint Goldman and visual effects supervisor Steve (Spaz) Williams, have long experience in the f/x field, notably at Industrial Light & Magic, which did many of the effects here. Rarely has there been a film so loaded with effects at the expense of character or narrative coherence, which will be as a big a turn-on for some viewers as it is a turn-off for others.
The accomplishment and variety of visual happenings provides plenty of onscreen fireworks, but without any suspense, horror, wonder or dramatic surprise underlying them, they remain things to admire or just behold for their own sake.
Thesps have all been seen to better advantage elsewhere, to say the least.