Forget knock knock knockin' on Heaven's door; Malebolgia wants to burn the pearly gates to ash. Hell has devoted an eternity to amassing the army it needs to overtake Heaven, and now it's just a matter of enlisting the right general to lead the underworld's forces into battle. The big man knows just the guy for the job too: CIA assassin Al Simmons (Michael Jai White). The only thing is that Al isn't dead quite yet, but...y'know, details. Malebolgia's clown-faced lieutenant (John Leguizamo) and one of his earthly minions (Martin Sheen) take care of that in short order, sending Al screaming to Hell and back. Charbroiled from head to toe and fat-packed with necroplasm, the newly-dubbed Spawn returns five years later to a world he hardly recognizes. All the poor guy wants is to reconnect with his one-time fianceť (Theresa Randle) who's long since moved on, although he doesn't get too much of a chance to mope about his love life what with both Heaven and Hell trying to dig their claws into him. You've got the Violator on one side and heavenly warrior Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) on the other, each looking to have Spawn on their scorecard. From there, it's all...I don't know, chains and machine guns and low-octane car chases and capes and monsters and stuff.
I mean...nothing. Nothing about Spawn threatens to work. It's a horror/action flick that's devoid of any jolts or worthwhile creepiness, and the room-temperature brawls never manage to get pulses racing. The campy, ham-fisted performances owe more to Saturday morning cartoons than the grim-'n-gritty '90s comic set. Spawn is so fascinated by its own mythology -- which isn't nearly as dense and involved as the movie thinks it is -- that it takes forever for anything to get around to happening, overloading the first half of the movie with flashbacks, heavy-handed narration, and some of the clunkiest exposition ever committed to film. Michael Jai White mostly just growls and overemotes, Martin Sheen gnaws shamelessly on the scenery, and John Leguizamo's turn here makes for what may be -- okay, behind Franklin in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre -- the most grating, irredeemably agonizingly fucking annoying character in the history of cinema. Eight second cackle, bad pun, eight second cackle, fart joke, eight second cackle...lather, rinse, repeat. You're also treated to sterling dialogue like "it's a little late for Halloween, isn't it, Simmons?" "Where you're goin', every day is Halloween!" Get it? Because Hell. Oh, and even though Spawn had a reputation back in 1997 as some sort of dazzling visual effects spectacle, these days it looks more like...well...
The pretty-much-the-devil's mouth never moves when he talks either which is completely awesome. (The filmmakers try to wank their way out of that on the commentary, but...no, they're wrong.) I don't know. Despite clocking in an hour less than most superhero flicks do anymore, Spawn is dragged down by a glacial pace, devoting the pretty-much-action-free first half of the flick to endless reams of exposition and backstory. When Spawn does get all gussied up in the armor and the 45,000 foot wingspan cape, he shrugs off his superpowers and is generally content to fire semi-automatic weapons and glow green. The fallen angel whose arm turns into a sword teaches Spawn about his hellborne powers, which include imagining chains with a Spawn face on them destroying a bottle of strawberry ripple, plus he can make his belt buckle bite a chick
The plot's ridiculous and so poorly conveyed that Spawn constantly stops dead in its tracks to overexplain it to you. The action alternates between tepid -- go ahead and mash the 'skip chapter' button once Spawn hops on that motorcycle -- and incomprehensible. The deliriously over-the-top performances are wildly out of step with the bleak tone Spawn otherwise seems to be aiming towards. There's zero characterization or even a vaguely convincing motivation for anything that's going on. I know that the clown (helpfully named "Clown") is supposed to be this unnerving mix of terror and comic relief, but instead, you get a dwarven, morbidly obese guy farting a green cloud and then pulling off his skidmark-stained undies, and there's another part where he's in pigtails and a cheerleader outfit doing a Spawn-centric dance number. I get the idea, but...no? His relentless, repetitive laughter is a total fucking dealbreaker, though. Let me run a warm bath and slash open a couple of veins.
Spawn holds up about as well all these years later as Hypercolor tees and ALF pogs, and...ugh, don't make me write anymore. Just...just Skip It.
The flipside of the Spawn: Director's Cut DVD from all the way back in 1998 bragged about how it was "converted from the high definition transfer of the film!", and that's totally their exclamation point and not mine. I can't say I'd be all that be surprised if this Blu-ray disc also dates back to that nearly fifteen year old high-def master.
Not that it's unwatchable or anything, but Spawn is definitely saddled with the look you generally see in musty, ancient HD masters: weak clarity and detail, general fuzziness, an overly digital appearance, and a distractingly clumpy grain structure. I can definitely tell that it's high-def, so there's that, but the praise doesn't get a whole lot more enthused from there. On the upside, Spawn's palette comes through reasonably well, although the production design not surprisingly skews so dark and dingy that it almost doesn't matter. There's nothing in the way of speckling or damage either. Not the worst Blu-ray disc I've ever slogged through or anything but still considerably below average.
Though this Blu-ray release of Spawn is in pretty much every other way bargain bin shovelware, it does somehow get the dual-layer treatment, and that's always appreciated. Its AVC encode does indeed creep over onto the second layer, and if you're fussy about this sort of thing, a few scanlines' worth of matting have been opened up to reveal an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
I kinda want to say nice things about Spawn's 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. I mean, the sound design absolutely tries to take full advantage of all the speakers at its fingertips, teeming with effects that smoothly pan from the front mains to the surrounds or aggressively attack from all sides. The problem is presumably that the audio on this director's cut was mixed expressly with DVD in mind a decade and a half ago,
Aside from the lossless English track, there are a half-battalion of dubs: German Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (640kbps) as well as stereo tracks (192kbps) in Italian, Portuguese, Polish, and Japanese. Also piled on here are subtitle streams in English (SDH), German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Japanese.
I think everything from the special edition DVD has been carried over. There's definitely nothing new.
The Final Word
From its cookie-cutter menu design to its woefully outdated technical presentation, this Blu-ray release of Spawn is straight-up bargain bin filler. Even if this were a movie I liked, the asking price of ten bucks on Amazon is still a few dollars more than I'd want to spend, and...well, this is in the running as one of the most excruciatingly awful comic book adaptations ever committed to film and all. Skip It.