Saturday, July 26, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Spawn (1997)

Last night I went over to my friend Nick's to watch Spawn for his podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. It's was slated for October as part of a Halloween-themed month and behold, here it is!

So let me tell you about how I movie I saw when I was in middle school (it came out the month I turned 13) about secret agent Al Simmons who returns from Hell as a demonic uber-warrior to see his wife again after making a deal with the Satan stand-in Malbolgia held up...

The Good

*John Leguizamo plays the demonic Violator, who's the "evil angel" on Spawn's shoulder to speak. And he's clearly having a lot of fun playing this character in all his perverted scatological glory. Among other things he eats a rotten pizza writhing with maggots out of a dumpster (something the actor actually did, according to TVTropes), passes prodigious quantities of gas, and even performs a cheerleading number dressed in drag. Yes, watch it. It's hilarious. But he's not just a purveyor of lowbrow humor and bad advice to our hero--watch out when he gets really mad (it's around 2 minutes into this clip). He's probably one of the best things about this movie.

*The character of Cogliostro, implied in this version to be a Hellspawn from an earlier generation who had successfully rebelled against Malbolgia and now serves Heaven, had a lot of potential to be an interesting character. They didn't touch on it as much as they could have, but then again, it's not his movie.

*I liked how they introduced the evil Jason Wynn (played by Martin Sheen) and his henchwoman Jessica Priest. Jason is smoking prodigiously and putting out his cigarettes in an ashtray crawling with live scorpions, while Priest is getting really friendly with a tarantula.

*The fight scenes--with the exception of the battle between Spawn and Cogliostro and the Violator in Hell--are pretty entertaining. Michael Jai White, who plays Spawn, is a martial artist in real life, so that certainly helps.

*Spawn's widow Wanda and his best friend Terry are in an interracial marriage with a biracial daughter and nobody cares. Not even the villains. It's a non-issue.

The Bad

*How on Earth a superhero movie could be this dull is beyond me. The opening credits (which consist of a lot of stylized fire effects and the names of pretty much everybody involved in the film) take about ten minutes. During the movie and the podcast I joked that this is where a lot of the special effects budget went, considering how poorly the rest of the special effects held up. The movie drags in multiple places, so this isn't just a one-time problem. It is probably one of the most excruciatingly dull films I've seen this year.

*The special effects are abysmal, especially in scenes taking place in Hell. The computer animation sequences in which the characters go to Hell (Al when he's damned as a murderer and Al and Cogliostro when Violator drags them into Hell to fight him there) is really fake. And when we actually get to Hell, it looks like (as TVTropes put it), a bad Playstation One game. Malbolgia is even worse--when he talks his mouth doesn't move with his words. And by that, I mean it doesn't move very much at all. This isn't some 1960s Godzilla movie with poor dubbing, but much, much worse.

Yes, I know the movie was made in 1997, but guess what else came out in 1997? Men In Black.The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And this is after the glories of Jurassic Park (1993) and The Abyss
(1989). This movie cost $40 million to make, so it's not like there wasn't money available.. I've seen much cheaper movies with much better special effects than this. If they made Hell a physical set in the vein of What Dreams May Come and made the Malbolgia a physical puppet monster rather than CGI, that would have been a massive improvement. Sometimes a big puppet really IS better than CGI.

*Here's a really ballsy alternative course they could have taken that would have dealt with the above issue--make the movie animated. There was an an HBO animated series that premiered a few months before the movie did and lasted a few years. The movie could have been a tie-in with the animated series in the vein of Ducktales The Movie or even replaced it completely. The former course makes more sense business-wise even if it means the movie would be released a year later, since a TV show is a cheaper way to build a fan-base. Animation would save money on actors (since it wouldn't take up as much of their time to record lines as opposed to physical acting) and avoid the special effects fails of the live-action movie.

And even though animation for adults is pretty risky in the USA, this would have been a great time for it. This is years before Batman Begins,during which the Batman saga consisted of the much goofier Schumacher films. Hell, this is the year of Batman and Robin, which from what little I know of it was just absurd.

(Seriously, a Bat Credit Card? And here are some really bad Mr. Freeze puns too.)

This is also the age of the dark 1990s antiheroes. Spawn is the epitome of that trend, being an undead assassin transformed into some kind of hell-monster who does really awful things to really awful people. There simply were no films reflecting this trend, so even a riskier violent animated movie would fill a gap.

The Verdict

So much wasted potential. Don't bother with it. 3 out of 10.

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