Genre: Superhero Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.
Release Date: August 1st, 1997 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mark A.Z. Dippe Actors: Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, Theresa Randle, Nicol Williamson, Melinda Clarke, D.B. Sweeney
t a military air base in Hong Kong, a highly skilled operative, Lieutenant Colonel Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), overthrows an elevated command center to complete his mission: to assassinate a visiting political leader (along with, unintentionally, a couple dozen innocent people) before demolishing the tower to hide all trace of his involvement. This action sequence is preceded by a voiceover introduction that explains the convoluted, specific definitions of the eternal battle between Heaven and Hell, waged by the devil Malebolgia, who plots to build an army for the onset of Armageddon. Odder still, however, is the presence of a mysterious observer, who appears to be looking out for the arrival of the assassin, as if to judge him for his deed.
Back in the United States, at the A-6 Headquarters, a fat, squat, wild-haired monstrosity, hiding in the shadows, surreptitiously growls demands at high-ranking government man Director Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), who oversees the special operations assignments that find Simmons unwittingly killing ordinary civilians. Fed up with Wynn’s disregard for senseless casualties, Al demands a transfer. But Wynn insists that a final mission must be accomplished: a North Korean refinery that has been engineering biological weapons needs to be destroyed. Unfortunately for Simmons, the job is a setup, during which he’s swiftly executed for his insubordination and his unwillingness to give in to corruption. After being shot (by Wynn’s chief crony Jessica Priest [Melinda Clarke], who dresses in black vinyl and leather, and sports indiscreet cleavage), doused in chemicals, and lit on fire, Al awakes in an otherworldly purgatory (little more than a rundown back alley), where the overweight, dwarfish puppetmaster, the Clown (John Leguizamo) finally reveals himself.
Five years pass, though it’s poorly explained as to where exactly the nightmarish “alley” was, what happened to Al (mention of a viral necroplasmic body certainly doesn’t help), how he’s able to return to his former fiancee’s (Theresa Randle as Wanda) house, why an ancient crusader named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson, playing an unenthusiastic Obi-Wan equivalent) keeps turning up, and what the Clown’s superpowers are (or why he takes the form of an ungainly, face-painted jester). “What are you?” A flashback arises to fill in a few gaps, but it’s badly misplaced. As it turns out, Malebolgia wishes for Al to lead his army of hellspawn against angels and humanity and … whoever else. Additional flashbacks begin plaguing the plot, hoping to clear up the many questions, but they only further convolute things.
Spawn’s origins are so sloppy that they’re essentially meaningless. He’s a superhero with seemingly limitless powers – including inhuman strength, a red cape that materializes out of nowhere, and grappling-hook-like chains that snake outward from his shoulders (living extensions of his instincts) – and though he’s initially recruited by the bad guys, he’ll inevitably join the forces of righteousness. Before that time, however, continual machine gun shootouts ensue, providing plenty of opportunities for death and destruction and unstimulating commotions.
Unfortunately, as a product of the ’90s, “Spawn” relies heavily on dated, primitive, terribly unconvincing computer graphics (along with a special ops disc prop of laughable construction). Prosthetics and practical effects fare better; the Clown’s look, though unexplained and randomly disturbing, is amusing, while Simmons’ horribly disfigured face is, at the very least, an accomplishment in makeup. These designs have potential, but here they’re just intermittently ghastly components to make Spawn’s adventures more outlandish.
The characters are so uninspiring and unsympathetic that their failures and triumphs are just as worthless as the appalling storytelling decisions and the pitiful editing. Part of the problem, as with many newer sci-fi/fantasy yarns, is the failure to define the limitations of the various superheroes and supervillains; without a belief in vulnerabilities, there’s never any concern over their survival. This makes lines such as, “Take care of your powers; when you drain them, you die” even more disappointing, since they have no significance. And if the beginning of “Spawn” was a mess, the finale – a repetitive cacophony of nonsensical combat – is an absolutely incoherent disaster.
– Mike Massie