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If you like your summer movies indistinguishable from video games, your heroes straight out of Toon Town and, just to gild the lily, wise-cracking, clown-faced villains who chomp on pizza topped with wriggling green larvae, then Spawn might be the picture for you. Harder-edged than Spielberg's latest dinosaur epic or the Batman sequel of the week, it's just the ticket for fantasy/horror cultists and tragically misunderstood teenagers hiding out in their darkened bedrooms with the latest Slayer disc blasting through the headphones.

In just three years, the phenomenally successful comic books of Todd McFarlane (100 Million Sold!) have spun off into a line of Spawn action toys and an animated series on HBO. Now, just in case anyone's missed out on the merging of maverick with mainstream, here's The Movie--a relentless display of flaming, morphing, slime-dripping special effects that young fantasists will label "awesome" and their elders will no doubt spurn in droves. It may suffice to say that when executive producer Alan Blomquist told his two young sons he was involved in the live-action Spawn project, he was suddenly crowned "king of the fourth grade."

George Lucas's fabled Industrial Light + Magic unit was the main player in conjuring up the movie's overcooked, lava-spewing version of hell and a back-from-the-damned hero who can instantly turn himself into an armor-plated dreadnought or sprout big spikes from his shoulders just by thinking about it. But it took no fewer than twenty other special-effects houses and labs from Mill Valley to Toronto to Tokyo to close the deal: Spawn's list of technical credits looks like the phone book of a minor state capital. It's hard to know if the company called XAOS (San Francisco) gave John Leguizamo's fat, evil clown his darting, foot-long black tongue, or if it was Banned From the Ranch Entertainment (Santa Barbara) that stuck all those fearsome talons onto the devil Malebolgia. In the end, it doesn't much matter. Awesome is awesome, regardless of who's manning the 3-D Model Digitizer or plotting the Texture Map.

By the way, did we mention Good and Evil?
As any true Spawn-ite who's completed junior high can tell you, young McFarlane isn't just another dude chained to the drawing board. He's also a thinker. He thinks a lot about Sin and Redemption, Dark and Light, Good Guys and Bad Guys. You know. Important stuff. That's probably why his troubled hero, Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), is a secret agent who must die in a horrible explosion planned by his evil boss Wynn (Martin Sheen), then sell his soul to Satan in order to see his wife again, then come back up from hell, reconstituted as the superhero called Spawn, and fight the arrayed forces of evil, which take the forms of cackling clowns, megalomaniacal former employers who've armed themselves with deadly virus bombs, and the occasional fire-belching, fifteen-foot-tall insect.

Well, then. How did a good man like Al wind up in hell in the first place? Who knows. The movie's grasp of theology simply doesn't extend that far, despite the kindergarten hash of Dante, Faust, biblical fire and brimstone, and Greek myth that McFarlane and screenwriter Alan McElroy throw at the screen. Rookie director Mark A.Z. Dippe is no help, either. He made his movie bones as an EFX wizard on blockbusters like The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, and it's clear that he regards narrative logic as an annoyance separating one major explosion from the next. Like most other action/fantasy movies, Spawn is a celebration of movement, a hymn to pure energy, and while these gazillions of technicians are busy morphing our eyes out, any damn fool character stupid enough to get in the way is sure to get blown off the screen before we can have a chance to figure him out.

As far as we can tell, our man Al/Spawn is one part Phantom of the Opera (alienated yet brave) and two parts Hunchback of Notre Dame (grotesque yet noble)--but loaded with the latest Terminator/RoboCop options. These include a quick-mutation package that can change him in seconds from a charred hulk of necroplasm into a rampaging half-track. He's also got swirling-red-cape capability and a scorching green laser-gaze that could burn the gonads right off the devil. With equipment like this, Spawn doesn't need good lines of dialogue, and he doesn't get them. "I'm through doin' hell's dirty work!" the big fellow intones. This from the same actor who portrayed Mike Tyson on cable TV.

While the special-effects people keep upping the excitement ante (mustn't this particular market crash one day?), it's villain Leguizamo who gets to have the fun. Gotten up in a thirty-pound "fat suit," his satanic berserker, a distant relative of Beetlejuice, gets to mock Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (bad timing, no?), dip earthworms in mayonnaise and suck 'em down like spaghetti (a scene every six-year-old is bound to recall while sitting down to lunch) and, whenever he damn well feels like it, transform himself right before our eyes into another form of demon scarier than the last one.

All of this adds up to the kind of dazzling technical performance we've come to expect from the lab rats at the movie studios. But in the end (unless you're eleven), you can't help asking: So what? Well, okay. As if you didn't already know, Good also overcomes Evil in the end. But only, as the narrator gravely puts it, "for now." That, of course, indicates that all 21 labs that got a slice of the first Spawn are already cooking up new creepy-crawlies and major conflagrations for the inevitable sequel. Spawn continues to spawn, and there's nothing any of us can do about it.

Spawn.
Visual effects supervised by Steve "Spaz" Williams. Directed by Mark A.Z. Dippe. With Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen and Theresa Randle.

 
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