Spawn (1997)

Posted in Reviews by - May 24, 2020
Spawn (1997)

A twisted, grungy CGI experiment gone wrong, this live-action adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s popular comic book is a convoluted nightmare. It was famously killed by the critics, which is a shame considering it features martial arts ace Michael Jai White playing the world’s first African-American comic-book superhero on the big screen. Not that you get to see much of him: White spends most of the film in a gimp-like bodysuit and mask disguising a burned head which resembles a pork scratching. Much of the dialogue – too much, in fact – is instead handed over to John Leguizamo’s relentlessly irritating clown, called ‘Violator’, and Martin Sheen’s caricatured governmental suit, Jason Wynn, who talks like he constantly needs to clear his throat. Both Sheen and Leguizamo appear to be aiming for the Tim Burton school of over-the-top comic-book villainy, and much of the film’s gothic aesthetic follows suit; but there are also clear attempts to reach for a much darker edge, with a heavy rock soundtrack featuring acts like The Prodigy and Marilyn Manson, and sequences which are both grotesque and violent. Tonally, it’s all over the place; never once striking the right balance between being playful and subversive.

The story also feels disjointed and compromised. White plays special operative Al Simmons, a happily married governmental killer-for-hire who is set-up by his mad boss, Wynn, when he wants out of the game. He is burnt in a fire at a toxic waste plant and ends up in the ‘underworld’ with all-over body burns. Five years later, and suddenly Simmons reappears in the real world to try and win back his wife and seek revenge on those responsible; only now he has transformed into the masked, immortal badass known as Spawn, complete with super-strength, x-ray vision, steel grappling hooks which emanate from his body and a cape which allows him to fly – none of which is ever properly qualified. The Blade Runner-esque underworld is depicted in constant rain-soaked darkness, full of waifs and strays, and it’s completely unclear as to how this alternate realm interacts with our own. It then turns out that Spawn has been handpicked by the Dark Lord himself to lead a hell’s army into battle, taking over the world. The sequences in hell are some of the weirdest things you’ve ever seen in a movie: giant, computer-animated talking beasties and thousands of replica foot-soldiers surrounded by fire and brimstone like a mad, surrealist art-piece made from the off-cuts of New Line Cinema’s other realm-jumping franchise, Mortal Kombat. Unlike the Mortal Kombat films – which used CGI sparingly – this is completely overwhelmed by it, and the more physical action scenes are completely pushed to the margins.

Despite being appallingly executed, in many ways, the film was ahead of its time; not just in terms of representation, but also in pre-dating the omnipotent comic-book influence that was to besiege every major Hollywood studio in the years to come.

This post was written by
Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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