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'Spawn': Murky Depths

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 1, 1997

Bleaker than Batman and crisper than bacon, "Spawn’s" deep-fried superhero takes on the Devil himself in this muddled revenge fantasy inspired by Todd McFarlane’s best-selling comic book. The film, like the comic book and the animated series, draws heavily on religious doctrine, but it doesn’t skimp on the visually enhanced fart jokes.

The movie opens as Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a crack CIA operative, is set afire by corrupt colleagues, dies, spends five years in Hell and finally is resurrected as Spawn. Before returning to Earth, he signs a pact with the Devil, promising to lead his army in exchange for one last visit with his beloved wife (Theresa Randle).

Among his opponents is the Clown (John Leguizamo in 20 pounds of fat), supplying both gas and comic relief. The sick little fiend delights in tormenting Spawn, whom he calls Crispy, and makes it his business to keep him in a swivet.

Help arrives in the form of Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), a magus who manages to talk some sense into the bewildered super hero. Apparently, such pacts are not as binding as they once were, for Spawn has the choice of nullifying the agreement. At least, that’s what Cogliostro says, and he’s been fighting Old Mr. Pitchfork since he died in the Crusades. Equipped with a broad sword and chain mail, he helps Spawn learn to fully use his own futuristic body armor, which changes shapes and sprouts spikes or chains. Best of all is a billowing scarlet cape that makes Batman’s look like a hankie.

When properly trained, Spawn confronts his former CIA boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), a megalomaniac who, duh, plans to take over the world. Unfortunately, Wynn’s evildoer is a couple of watts short of a bulb. For that matter, so is "Spawn" with its thicket of narrative, punctuated by repetitive action sequences.

The nonsensical screenplay can barely stand-up to the hellzapoppin,’ Beelzebubbin’ effects mustered by first-time director Mark Dippe. The former F/X whiz isn’t interested in telling a story, revealing character or creating a viable fictional universe. All he cares about is blowing up stuff. Like the Hooved One himself, all he cares about is the big bang.

With Sheen on board and the end of all we know in sight -- except the movie, of course -- they should have called it Apocalypse Pow!

SPAWN (PG-13) — Contains profanity, gross-out jokes, various types of violence and child abuse.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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