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Review by
Christos N. Gage

SPAWN: The Director's Cut - 1997
New Line Platinum Series
Rating: USA: PG-13 & R

The R-rated director's cut of SPAWN is basically the PG-13 version with more violence and naughty words. Casual viewers won't find much of interest here, but die-hard SPAWN fans who want the 100-proof version will also find a lot to like in the special features that accompany the film.

The premise of SPAWN will be familiar to many, but I'll summarize it briefly. Covert operative Alex Simmons (Michael Jai White: TOXIC AVENGER II, TOXIC AVENGER III) is an assassin for a shadowy government organization, a man who does bad things for what he believes are good reasons. When he decides he wants out, his corrupt boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen: THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE, THE DEAD ZONE, THE BELIEVERS, HEAR NO EVIL) and the amoral Agent Priest (Mindy Clarke: THE KILLER TONGUE, ANIMATRIX) murder him. Simmons goes to hell, where the Satanesque demon Malebolgia offers him a bargain: if Simmons will agree to lead the armies of hell against Heaven, Malebolgia will return him to Earth so he can see his beloved fiance, Wanda (Theresa Randle: NEAR DARK), again.

Simmons accepts the bargain and quickly finds out why the odds favor the house in the Hades Hotel & Casino: the devil doesn't play fair. Yes, Alex is back on earth, but his face is horribly scarred from his death by fire. And it's five years later - Wanda is married to his best friend, Terry Fitzgerald, and they have a daughter, Cyan, who may or may not be Simmons'. Alex gets to see his wife from a distance, but that's all he can do.

Both Heaven and Hell are interested in what Simmons does next. The hideous, demonic Clown (John Leguizamo: WHISPERS IN THE DARK, LAND OF THE DEAD) pushes him to kill Wynn, who has a device attached to his heart ensuring that, if it stops beating, it will unleash a biological doomsday weapon on the population of earth and start the battle of Armageddon. The 500-year-old Cagliostro tries to appeal to the good buried somewhere inside Alex. Meanwhile, Simmons is dealing with his transformation into the supremely powerful being known as Spawn.

Actually, he's too powerful, and that's my biggest problem with Spawn as a character. As seen in this movie, he can do just about anything: fly, heal, create armor, use eye-beams to remove things from peoples' bodies: there's no rhyme or reason to it; whatever he needs to do, he is able to do in some way that's visually cool but not necessarily logical.

But seeking logic in this film is a fool's errand. If you're looking for a coherent story, you're wasting your time. Director Mark Dippe comes out of the world of special effects, and that's where his interests lie. And given the modest $40 million budget (modest compared to the JURASSIC PARKS of the world) the effects are fantastic, especially the ones involving Spawn's cape, which swirls and writhes like the living thing it's supposed to be. The final battle takes place in Hell itself, a surreal, fiery place that isn't 100% successfully realized, but comes damn close, especially considering that the original budget didn't allow for the sequence.

As for the performances, the actors do the best they can with what they have, which is a muddled plot and cheesy, expository dialogue. Martin Sheen as the villain, Wynn, is running on automatic, but still adds a note of class to the proceedings, and it's kind of fun to watch him play what is essentially the parallel-world-evil-twin version of President Bartlett on The West Wing. Michael Jai White gives a fine performance considering he's in a prosthetic suit for most of the film, infusing Spawn with a tortured dignity that makes the character work on a basic emotional level. John Leguizamo tries his best to make The Clown work, but he just can't. He's not scary looking, he's saddled with way too much expository dialogue, and seeing Leguizamo squeezed into the short, fat Clown suit made me wince each time I saw the poor guy. Some things don't translate from comics to film, and the Clown is one of them. In contrast, however, the transformation of the silly looking Clown into the hideous creature known as the Violator is eye-popping, and the CGI Violator is succeeds totally.

The 220 new picture changes and remixed sound in this R-rated version mostly bring back things that were cut out of the theatrical version to ensure a PG-13 rating, so that Spawn's many young fans could see the film. Often the new additions involve restoring scenes of violence that had to be cut, like the shot of Alex Simmons going up in flames before he dies. Or they have to do with the Clown's off-color humor, like when he tells Spawn there was evil inside him when he was still "soup in your Mama's crotch".

This is not exactly APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, folks.

There's a lot more interesting stuff to be found in the Special Features (to access some of them, you have to turn the disc over, like an old vinyl LP, which gave me a weird feeling of not-quite-deja vu). There are three early concept sketches of SPAWN by Todd McFarlane, including his earliest. They're fun, but I wish they'd been bigger: perhaps they could have given viewers the option of seeing both a regular-sized version and a larger one where you can scroll up and down to see the details. I should point out that I collect original comic art, so I know how large the pages normally are; the size might not bother most people. I also would have liked to see more than three drawings.

There's no shortage of movie concept sketches, though; there are over 200 of them. Although not by McFarlane, they're cool to see (but "Malebolgia" is misidentified as "Melabolgia" which sounds like a skin disease). Once again, I wish they were bigger, but maybe I just need a bigger TV.

Most interesting to fans who want info on the character's genesis is an interview with Todd McFarlane about his career and creation of Spawn. I'd never heard McFarlane speak before; he has a camera-friendly look and a great Jersey accent that made me want to cast him in any Mafia-themed movie I ever make.

The audio commentary track features a virtual army: director Dippe, producer Clint Goldman, visual effects supervisor "Spaz"Williams, and McFarlane. Typically, the screenwriter is nowhere to be found. That's less of a crime in this case because he was essentially adapting McFarlane's story, but it still pisses off this card-carrying member of the Writer's Guild of America West. McFarlane was recorded separately from the others, and perhaps due to the interview with him that appears elsewhere, is not heard from as much in the commentary, but does provide timely comments about his thinking when
developing the character. As for the other three speakers, well, I wasn't thrilled. There's a few reasons for this. One, these guys have all known each other a long time, and they like to bullshit with each other and tell stories about their hijinks when they worked at Industrial Light and Magic. They sound like a bunch of frat guys talking over a few beers, which is fine, but not when it prevents you from getting information about making the film.

I like for these audio tracks to give me insight into what led the filmmakers to make the choices they made and/or how they accomplished things. For instance, the revelation that the sexy, villainous Agent Priest, who is killed early in the film, was to return from hell as a female Spawn until budget restrictions made it impossible explains what seems like the most wasteful death of a cool bad guy since Boba Fett. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of that kind of behind the scenes info, except in the area of special effects (of course, that reflects the focus of the movie). There are some very detailed descriptions of certain effects, which would interest SFX junkies, but I'm not one. Dippe spends a lot of time explaining what's in this version that was cut from the first and why it was cut, but I could have figured most of that out for myself, and his complaining about the ratings board (though warranted) gets tiresome. If you're into FX, give the commentary a listen, but if not, save it for when you're hung over and have nothing else to do.

If you're a fan of the SPAWN comic, you'll probably like what is a pretty faithful adaptation. But guess what: even if you're not a fan of Spawn or McFarlane, but are interested in translating comics to film, you should rent this and check out what McFarlane has to say about the whole process. Hearing him talk, you get a real sense of the guy. He's not a Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore, crafting multilayered stories with literary allusions. What he is is a guy who loves what he does and is fiercely determined to protect his creations. Hearing the story of how there was interest in SPAWN from several big studios, including Sony, but McFarlane held out until he found one that would give him the creative control he wanted, should serve as a lesson to other creators: if you want it done your way, get it in writing, and be prepared to take your ball and go home if they won't give it to you. Hearing the childlike excitement in his voice as he comments on the final battle sequence between Spawn and the Violator makes it clear that this is not just a business for McFarlane: he truly loves this stuff. And that, my friends, is the most crucial lesson any creator can learn: love what you do, because if you don't, no one else will.

Bottom line, if you want a treatise on brilliant filmmaking, buy the Citizen Kane special edition. SPAWN is an SFX spectacular, and if that's what you want, you'll be very happy. If you want more, look elsewhere.

I give SPAWN: The Director's Cut two Shriek Girls for general audiences, four if you're into SFX or the comic, producing an average of Three Shriek Girls.

This review copyright 2002 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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