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Five years after he was murdered by his own colleagues in a covert government operation, Al Simmons makes a pact with the devil to be resurrected so that he may see his wife Wanda once more. In return for the favor, the devil requires, in typically Faustian fashion, that Simmons lead Hell's Army for the destruction of humankind. Blessed in life with extraordinary killing skills, Simmons is even more deadly with the backing of his new master and the changling powers he has at his disposal. As he begins to discover and exercise his new strengths, he encounters two figures who direct him to use his powers in order to serve two different agendas. Cogliostro encourages Spawn to fight the devil and become a new champion for humankind, while Clown goads Spawn into continuing to serve his new master and lead the Armageddon.
For more about Spawn and the Spawn Blu-ray release, see Spawn Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on July 5, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, Theresa Randle, Nicol Williamson, D.B. Sweeney
Director: Mark A.Z. Dippé
» See full cast & crew
Spawn Blu-ray Review
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, July 5, 2012
Come back with me, friends. All the way back to 1992, when a rogue group of eight disgruntled comicbook artists and writers -- Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, Chris Claremont and Whilce Portacio -- walked away from Marvel Comics to form their own publishing house: Image Comics. It was a bold gamble, one that paid off beyond the founders' wildest imaginations. Twenty years later, Image isn't nearly the threat to Marvel and DC that it once was, even with exciting new talent like Robert Kirkman and acclaimed books like "The Walking Dead" under its banner, but there was a time when Image seemed poised to make a full multimedia coup. And no Image comic was more critical to that attempted coup than McFarlane's "Spawn," a monthly series that, for better or worse, defied superhero convention, dealt in more darkness than most every other mainstream book of the era, and branched out into everything from action figures to collectibles, animated series, videogames and even feature films. Or rather feature film. Modest box office success or no, director Mark A.Z. Dippé's critically panned Spawn was a cheesy, misguided mess that put a serious damper on any grand franchise aspirations. And the years haven't been kind.
When a covert government agency assassin named Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) asks one too many questions and raises one too many objections, his handler, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), and Wynn's right-hand woman Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke) gun Simmons down and burn him alive. Condemned to Hell for the brutal atrocities he perpetrated in life, the former soldier strikes a deal with Malebolgia (voiced by Frank Welker), one of the lords of the underworld. In return for his eternal service in Malebolgia's army, Simmons asks to visit the world of the living so he might see his beloved wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) one last time. But come on, Al. When has a deal with a devil ever been worth a man's soul? Simmons is resurrected as promised... just five long years after his death. What's more, he's disfigured beyond recognition, learns that his wife has married his best friend Terry Fitzgerald (D. B. Sweeney), and discovers he has a daughter (Sydni Beaudoin). With the help of a mysterious guide named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) and the input of a not-so-helpful demon clown dubbed the Violator (John Leguizamo), though, Simmons also discovers that he's been granted all the necroplasmic powers of a near-immortal hellspawn. With rage and vengeance fueling the fire still burning in his tortured soul, Simmons sets out to kill Wynn and Priest, whatever the cost.
Spawn is, by and large, fairly faithful to the book that spawned it. In some ways too faithful I'd argue. The film's overly ambitious, long-since-archaic practical and visual effects take a stab at reproducing McFarlane's supernatural antiheroes and beasties from horn to claw but come up terribly short. Simmons doesn't look like an agile offspring of Hell; he looks like a dumb, pudgy brute covered in heavy sheets of wet plastic and draped in a disembodied red spider web of a CG cape. The hard lines of White's face are buried beneath inches of slack-jawed prosthetics, his hulking frame appears bulky and bloated, and, despite some striking similarities, the hellspawn's cartoonish skulls, chains, spikes, mask and body armor actually manage to distance the costumed Simmons from his slick comicbook counterpart. As conceived, Spawn was already the stuff of an overstimulated middle school boy's paper-bag book-cover sketches. But it worked. McFarlane made it work. On screen, Simmons is reduced to a slow, cumbersome meat-sack that only looks the part when perched on a rooftop or church steeple, slathered in CG. Then there's the Violator. Waddling across cramped set after cramped set, McFarlane's demon clown is a ridiculous, cumbersome man-in-suit and a pale imitation of his creepy comicbook incarnation. It's even worse when the creature sheds its farting fat-suit and reveals its true form, which would have been more menacing had Dippé combined stop-motion animation with one of McFarlane's action figures. In the dark, the CG monstrosity is passable. In the light of Hell's fire... good God. And then there's Malebolgia (one of the most bizarrely eye-gouging screen giants ever generated in a computer), a silly paint-by-numbers vision of Hell, and an even sillier glimpse at Hell's rambunctious army.
I could stomach the dated visual effects, though, if White and his castmates mustered even remotely redeeming performances. I know, I know. It was 1997 and big-screen comicbook adaptations were still in their infancy. But that's not much of an excuse. White growls and grimaces like a man sorely in need of more fiber in his diet, but never makes Simmons a convincing agent of righteousness or immorality, or his necro-powered hellspawn all that heroic or frightening a force. Sheen, meanwhile, sneers, leers and steers his evil-bearded villain over the top of over-the-top, with Clarke hot on his heels. Sweeney and Randle are serviceable but really nothing more than set dressing, given little to work with and even less depth to explore. Williamson aims for wizened mentor but hits philosophy-spewing angel-on-the-shoulder instead. Welker sounds as if he has a barbed-wire hairball caught in his absurdly modulated throat. And Leguizamo's ham-fisted delivery and physical comedy are exactly the sort of things I'd expect to be tormented by if I woke up in the eighth level of Hell. I imagine Spawn's nightmarishly hackneyed script, generic metal-tweaked rawk score, dingy production design, sleazyball comedy, forcibly plucked third-act heart strings, and dismal, rain-soaked cinematography would probably be waiting for me when Leguizamo was through. Faced with an eternity with Spawn, fire and brimstone would be a godsend. Yes, nostalgia typically goes a long way. Yes, in 1997 I seem to remember getting a kick out of Spawn in the theater. And yes, I'm sure some of you -- those who still bust out Mortal Kombat and its sequel on a regular basis -- will have a blast revisiting such a corny late '90s comicbook actioner. But the Angel of Nostalgia didn't descend from Heaven and save me. The oft-merciful warrior simply stood by and watched as I was dragged, kicking and screaming, deeper and deeper into cinematic Hell.
Spawn Blu-ray, Video Quality
Grimy and grungy as it is, Spawn's1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer is commendably true to its source, flaws and all. Soft shots, oppressive shadows, muddy colors, inconsistent contrast, occasionally unnatural skintones, and bursts of unwieldy noise seem to lurk around every corner, and the film's already subpar CG sequences are racked with all manner of abnormalities and aberrations (garish artifacting, banding, and aliasing, just to name a few). That said, there's no evidence that Spawn looks any worse than it did when it was first presented in theaters. Budgetary and technological limitations, shoddy visual effects, murky cinematography... all inherited from the source, all faithful to Dippé and director of photography Guillermo Navarro's intentions. And in many ways, the rancid, rotting aesthetic suits the movie perfectly. The Blu-ray presentation certainly looks better than its 1998 DVD counterpart. After a quick comparison, I'd even go so far as to call it something of a relative revelation. Detail, though unreliable on the whole, is quite impressive at times, grain is intact and undisturbed, the print used to mint the transfer is in decidedly decent shape, black levels have all but been applied by a comicbook inker's pen, and Spawn's blood-red cape, green necroplasmic energy and blazing hellfire are remarkably potent. Moreover, I didn't see any signs of unnecessary interference or tinkering (egregious filtering, scrubbing, sharpening or any other invasive cleanup techniques). Is Spawn a good looking film? Not even when it was in its prime. Does its high definition transfer have enough redeeming qualities to satisfy fans? Absolutely. If you have any lingering love for Dippé's adaptation, Warner's efforts will slap a Violator-sized grin on your face.
Spawn Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The same comparison could be drawn when evaluating Spawn's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, which is so far removed from the DVD's stilted sonic experience that it's tempting to award the mix top marks and send it on its way. But the film's sound design, like its hell-spewed antihero, isn't a subtle beastie. It's loud, aggressive, forceful and... well, loud. Sheer volume trumps finesse, a cacophony of gunfire, shattering glass and energy blasts tend to pass for an action scene, and everything seems locked in a battle for supremacy. Dialogue, be it barked, growled or spit out between prosthetic lips, is clean and clear overall, and only a few voices -- Malebolgia, the Violator and, every now and then, Spawn himself -- struggle with intelligibility. The rear speakers are crackling with all sorts of activity too, they just don't leave a lot of room for convincing directional effects or smooth pans. Likewise, LFE output ranges from agitated to angry, throwing a bit too much weight behind everything it supports. Like the visuals, though, it all complements the film. Spawn's lossless track is chained to its original sound design and, in that regard, assaults the listener with the full, cheesy fury of Dippé's hellscapes just as it should.
Spawn Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Spawn Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
As mangled, tortured and disfigured as its vengeful antihero, Spawn is a flawed, almost unbearable product of its time; so much so that even nostalgia can't save it from bargain bin damnation. I wasn't particularly thrilled with the film in 1997 (McFarlane's comic series was much better), but I don't remember it being this awful. Only the most loyal fans will still feel any affection, and even they may be forced to ask themselves, "what did I see in this thing fifteen years ago?" Fortunately, Warner's Blu-ray release will satisfy anyone pumped full of enough nostalgia to actually enjoy Spawn. Its supplemental package doesn't offer anything new, but its solid video transfer and able-bodied DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track put the DVD to shame. If you've never acquainted yourself with Simmons and McFarlane's battle between Heaven and Hell, stick with the comics (or HBO's short-lived animated series). If you haven't seen Spawn in a few years, approach with caution. If you've seen it recently and adore its dark, cheesy charms, then by all means add its Blu-ray release to your cart. You may be a part of a rapidly dwindling fanbase, but you'll be ecstatic with the high definition results.
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