Some movies seem perfectly suited for high-definition Blu-ray treatment. Take, for instance, “Spawn.” This 1997 adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s popular comic-book character may have a befuddled story line and a less-than-riveting hero, but its visuals are often strikingly beautiful in the sheer extent of their ugliness. So, it’s a great film to look at, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The thing about “Spawn” is that you can see how good it might have been with a more straightforward script and tighter direction. But with a screenplay cowritten and directed by Mark A.Z. Dippe, doing his first and only feature film, things go downhill from the start. The fact is, the movie gives us no genuine protagonist to root for and no real villain to hiss. Indeed, one of the film’s main baddies is interesting not so much for his villainy as for his eccentricity, which doesn’t say a lot for where the film is going.
Anyway, the movie opens with a mysterious character named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson in the final movie role of his career) solemnly intoning in a voice-over that “the battle between heaven and hell has waged eternal, their armies fueled by souls harvested on Earth.” It seems the Devil is recruiting people for his cause “in exchange for wealth and power. All the Dark Lord needs now is a great soldier.” That “great soldier” is to be Spawn.
The opening title sequence that follows is kind of fun, very creative and colorful, although the loud accompanying music is rather relentless. Then we meet Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a U.S. Special Ops agent who specializes in clandestine assassinations for the good of the country. But when he learns that his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), sent him to kill innocent civilians in the process, Simmons protests and threatens to quit the agency. Not so fast, says Wynn. We’ve got extra duty for you, one last job, so to speak.
As it turns out, Wynn is in truth working for the evil Clown (a totally unrecognizable John Leguizamo doing a combination of Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice and Danny DeVito’s Penguin), who is recruiting soldiers for his Master, the Devil himself. The idea is to kill Simmons, send him to hell, and then offer him a chance to return to Earth and to his fiancée, Wanda Blake (Theresa Randle), in exchange for Simmons becoming a Hellspawn of Satan, a leader of the Devil’s army. The Clown figures on using Simmons’s hatred of Wynn, his anger at his situation, and his love of his fiancée to turn him to their side.
In a most unpleasant scene, Wynn and his ruthless accomplice, Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke), shoot, set fire to, and blow up poor Simmons. The next thing Simmons knows five years have gone by, he’s burned and scarred, he possesses tremendous new powers, and his fiancée has married his old partner, Terry Fitzgerald (D.B. Sweeney). Sure, he’s pissed, but what can a guy do?
And that’s just the beginning of the movie, with things getting more complicated from there. But what’s it all about, really? Simmons the mortal was a nice guy, horrified that he was responsible for killing innocent people in his last earthly assignment. As Spawn, he retains his moral values and sense of guilt, yet he still manages to kill dozens of innocent policemen and government agents. What’s all that about?
And exactly what “army” does the Devil want Spawn to lead, and where and how? We never find out. The Clown just keeps encouraging Spawn to seek revenge against Wynn, who by this time is threatening to destroy the world with a deadly virus called Heat-16. Why is Wynn out to destroy the world? Who knows. Apparently, the Clown demands it of him, and Wynn figures there may be some power in it for him. Or something. At this point, I was beyond caring.
Thus, you begin to see some of the film’s problems. Simmons, as Spawn, is caught between doing bad or doing good, fighting for or fighting against the Devil, and the filmmakers want us to wonder which way he will go. But is there ever any question about which way he will eventually turn? Certainly not. We just have to wait and watch a series of repulsively cruel and inhumane scenes to get to the end. The movie is basically repellent in tone and muddled in concept.
As the main character, Spawn is a pretty dull fellow, no matter that he’s fitted out with the usual array of Batman-like gadgets and paraphernalia. The only thing Spawn’s got going for him is a really cool cape. Of the three villains, Sheen’s Wynn is nondescript, a generic bad guy with almost no distinguishing qualities of his own. The Devil appears to be a kind of CGI or puppet creation that simply looks corny and turns out to be something of a wimp in any case. Which leaves Leguizamo’s Clown, who adds the only life there is to the film. The Clown is so foul, so nasty, so offensive in everything he says and does, it becomes funny in a perverted way. Thank heaven (or hell) for his presence. Still, when the only character in the film we can appreciate is a depraved clown, you know things are bad.
Yet there is that one other saving grace I mentioned at the outset: The film’s appearance. The scenes of hell, fire, and brimstone are particularly fascinating, and they show up especially well in high definition. Therefore, what we’ve got is a movie whose look overshadows its substance. Not a good situation.
“Spawn” comes to Blu-ray in its 1.85:1 theatrical ratio, the New Line engineers using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec for the reproduction. Colors show up a touch too dark for absolute realism, but this is a comic-book adventure so I suppose realism doesn’t enter into the equation. Definition is merely average for an HD transfer, probably as good as the original print, though, and good enough for the fantasy graphics. The screen remains clear and bright (or clear and murky as the case may be) throughout the picture.
Lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 provides the kind of sound we have come to expect from an action thriller, the soundtrack very expansive in range and all-encompassing in its surround capabilities. There’s a strong, taut transient response that clarifies the audio nicely, yet there is also a slight metallic hardness involved. While dynamics seem a tad restricted for an all-out, slam-bang adventure film, the deepest bass can impress one with its power and impact.
The Blu-ray disc carries over most of the extras found on the special-edition DVD. First, there’s a feature-length audio commentary from creator Todd McFarlane, director Mark A.Z. Dippe, producer Clint Goldman, and visual effects supervisor Steve “Spaz” Williams. Next, there’s a twenty-two-minute making-of featurette, “The Making of Spawn.” After that is an extensive “Spawn” gallery of Todd McFarlane sketches, plus five scene-to-storyboard comparisons. Then, there is a seven-chapter segment on the guy who started it all, “Todd McFarlane: Chapter and Verse,” followed by two music videos by Marilyn Manson and Filter & the Crystal Method.
Things wind down with twenty-four scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
As a movie, “Spawn” can’t make up its mind what it wants to be any more than its protagonist knows who he is or what he wants to be. The whole thing seems little more than a setup for a possible live-action franchise that never materialized. A lot of wasted energy, actually.