Have you ever looked at the Mona Lisa by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci and wanted to draw a mustache on it? Have you listened to a perfectly formed symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and felt like it could be improved by blaring police sirens? Have you pondered a potential threat to all existence on the planet and thought the best solution for facing this complex problem and saving humanity was a three year old toddler? Why am I coming up with these ridiculous scenarios? Because last night I watched Spawn (1997). Like ruining a picturesque Spring day in the park with a flash mob dancing out of sync to polka music played backwards, today’s film deals with some weighty issues the Catholic Church has wrestled with from the beginning . . . only to completely botch it all with its mind-bendingly awful plot and having Michael Jai White play the title character.
Spawn does not start out as Spawn, but as an assassin for a shadowy organization known as A-6. Do not bother trying to figure what their exact role is, but they seem to be like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mixed with mercenaries, or something. It is the best I can do. Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is tasked with killing some Middle Eastern warlords that are debarking from a plane somewhere in the world. After some punching and kicking of guards in the control tower of our no-name airport, he sets up this portable rocket launcher that laughingly takes care of the target. Five minutes in and my brain has already queued up the circus music that runs through my head when I watch terrible movies, which turns out to be an apt metaphor for this one. Proceeding a brief scene where Simmons (I cannot call him Al) returns home to Wanda (Theresa Randle), his wife, he heads to A-6 headquarters with another person he apparently works with, Terry Fitzgerald (D. B. Sweeney). It is a little unclear because after they drive to work together, we do not see Terry again for several minutes. Anyway, Simmons goes in to see his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), and tells him he is fed up with the indiscriminate killing. Jason, who is clearly conning Simmons, assuages his hired gun’s ego by telling him he’s the best, and giving him an assignment to destroy a chemical factory where a virus is being developed. We then immediately cut to that scene, which, of course, is a trap. Jason is in league with a short, fat clown (literally) known as Violator (John Leguizamo) who is a henchman for the devil. I am not making this up. The evil one desires Simmons to lead his armies to destroy Heaven, which sounds bad but is such a dumb concept as to be dismissed out of hand. Still, the show goes on. Simmons is burned to death, and the virus is controlled by Jason. We next see Simmons’ charred and mangled body come to on top of a church. For a totally unexplained reason, five years have passed and Simmons is undergoing his transformation into Spawn. Being Spawn comes with a sort of living suit that Simmons can somehow make do anything he desires by simply thinking of it. Look, I should mention this was a comic book before it became a motion picture. Thus, this is an origin story and much of the rest of the time is spent seeing Spawn figure out the extent of his powers. The other parts are taken up with Jason doing more of the devil’s bidding with Violator acting as a go-between. The virus that Simmons had been sent to stop is now ready to be dispersed all over the world, and Jason has the vaccine. But the devil also needs Spawn to lead his armies for reasons, and in a story so convoluted as to be a joke, he must kill Jason out of revenge in order to take his place at the head of this legion. Attempting to sway Simmons in the right direction is Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), who had apparently been Spawn hundreds of years ago but had chosen not to do the devil’s bidding. Under his guidance, Spawn not only learns how to use his power but ultimately chooses to do the right thing. This is also aided by Terry, who reemerged as Wanda’s new husband and who decides to leak Jason’s plan to the media. There is a final showdown between Violator and Spawn and Cogliostro in the hot place. They win. Whatever.
I recall seeing Spawn in the theaters when I was younger, but I remembered nothing of it other than Michael Jai White being in it. Poor Michael Jai White. I believe this was his first big break, and it nearly ruined his career. He is actually better at comedy, if you can believe that notion. Still, the blame for the train wreck that is this movie cannot be laid at his feet. There are several moments in the film that point to the writers as the real culprits, and they are both great and small. For example, when Spawn first goes to confront Jason, the police catch up with him outside the building where a fancy gala is taking place. They begin shooting at our, er, hero, and he feels like he needs to take shelter. He does this by ducking into a corner and turning invisible. The police searchlights do not stop combing the building’s exterior, but moments later Spawn arbitrarily decides to reappear. There is also the line where Cogliostro tells Spawn that the only thing that could kill him now is if his suit runs out of energy. This idea is never paid off later. Never do we see Spawn battling the forces of darkness, his suit on its last legs. And this is all without mentioning his love of their family dog, Spaz. However, the biggest problem with the whole film is the idea that Spawn would choose to work for the devil. Yes, when he first dies and gets to hell, the evil one makes a bargain with him to be able to see his wife again if he agrees to lead the forces of darkness. But then five years go by and Simmons apparently has script-induced amnesia. Anyone in a heated moment (no pun intended) can make such a rash decision. Yet, he is depicted as a basically good person that genuinely desires to help the people around him. Hence, why would anybody that dedicated to doing right choose the wrong side? Because this is supposedly the tension propelling the film forward, and since no sane person would make this decision, the entire movie was ruined.
It is a shame, too, because as I mentioned at the outset and the previous paragraph suggests, Spawn has a very clear distinction between good and evil. It acknowledges the existence of God, and since clearly the devil is bad then God must be good. Of course, a practicing Christian does not need a movie like this to remind you of this fact, but kudos anyway for making this part obvious. God creates each and every person to be inherently good too, but then He gives us free will. This is where Faith becomes absolutely crucial to our lives. The devil understands us all too well, and the Bible underscores this notion. Things that we think are good and healthy for us can be used by the forces of evil to lead us astray from the narrow path. There are so many subtle examples in our modern culture, which is one of the reasons why I continue writing this blog. And this is the decision that Spawn must make. The devil, through Violator, makes sure that Spawn knows that it is Jason who is responsible for everything that happened to him. It is natural for a person to want to see their enemies punished. Any one of us in a moment of weakness might strike Jason down out of vengeance. But when Cogliostro reminds Spawn at the critical moment that doing so will lead to the death of Wanda and Terry’s child, it stays his hand. In other words, Spawn decides that life, especially those of the innocent, is worth saving. So, hooray for that, but boo to its execution.
Remarkably, Spawn is rated PG-13. I say that because the comic had a dark reputation. Whatever its rating, I would not recommend it to anyone. The special effects are cheesy, but there is a vision of hell that while silly, is something not worth seeing anyway. If you are curious to see somebody faced with a similar choice as Spawn and making the right call, watch Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). Funny how a film made over fifteen years previous could have not only a better story, but superior visuals. In the meantime, know that I am praying for you that you have the strength to resist the devil’s lies.