Friday August 1, 1997
Julie Harris in "The Belle of Amherst," there's probably no need to read any further. If, however, what you want is an anguished superhero from hell whose face looks like the inside of an all-weather radial, "Spawn" might just be the movie for you.
Based on Todd McFarlane's nightmare comic book, "Spawn" stars Michael Jai White (HBO's "Tyson") as Al Simmons, a rogue member of a rogue agency who is sent to hell by his superior, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), when he's virtually incinerated during a germ-warfare "experiment" in North Korea. Why Simmons didn't go in the other direction is not explained, and I don't want to ask, but once down there he makes a pact with Satan: By agreeing to lead the forces of hell against heaven at Armageddon, he is allowed to return to Earth and see his beloved wife, Wanda (Theresa Randle).
Inspired by the Tim Burton school of gothic urban decay, and with a few episodes of the old "Beauty and the Beast" series under his belt, director Mark A.Z. Dippe does a considerable job re-creating the feel of McFarlane's books; the scenes in hell are particularly ghoulish and otherworldly; the fire-scarred Simmons, who has metamorphosed into Spawn, takes the disquiet and self-loathing of the modern comic hero to new heights--or depths--especially when you consider that he's already dead. The special effects are effective and aggressive, although one might occasionally confuse a divine vortex with a flushed toilet.
Any questions will be answered in the sequel, which seems inevitable given that the final words of "Spawn" tell us in no uncertain terms that the story hasn't ended. But then, "Spawn" is mostly about establishing its hero and seeking revenge: Spawn, cape aswirl and eyes aglow, wants Wynn and is relentless in his pursuit.
Spawn doesn't actually return to Earth until five years have passed; finding Wanda married to his best friend Terry (D.B. Sweeney) doesn't help his disposition. Neither does the fact that he's caught on the horns of an infernal dilemma. The evil Clown, played by an antic but very funny John Leguizamo (he gets all the good lines), is intent on filling Satan's army with lost souls; to that end, he devises a scheme whereby Spawn's killing of Wynn will unleash an unstoppable viral plague. Nicol Williamson, posturing like hell's boulevardier, is Cogliostro, another hellian who urges Spawn to reject Satan and preserve life. Spawn, already in need of some serious dermatology, now has this end-of-the-world thing to worry about.
There's lots of action and lots of dubious theology, and the religious right will be tying itself in knots trying to figure out whom to boycott (New Line is owned by Time Warner, if that's any help). "Spawn," meanwhile, does what it's supposed to do, which is make a comic come to life. Or is it death?
Spawn, 1997. PG-13, for dark thematic elements and strong animated violence. New Line Cinema presents, in association with Todd McFarlane Entertainment, a Dippe Goldman Williams production. Director Mark A.Z. Dippe. Producer Clint Goldman. Screenplay by Alan McElroy, based on a screen story by Alan McElroy and Mark A.Z. Dippe. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Editor Michael N. Knue. Costumes Dan Lester. Music Graeme Revell. Production design Philip Harrison. Visual effects Steve "Spaz" Williams. Animation supervisor Dennis Turner. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. Michael Jai White as Spawn/Al Simmons. John Leguizamo as Clown. Martin Sheen as Jason Wynn. Nicol Williamson as Cogliostro. Theresa Randle as Wanda.