Aug 13, 1997 at 12:00 am

If it weren't for the efforts of a potty-mouthed, obese, satanic midget clown (played by an unrecognizable John Leguizamo), the big-screen adaptation of Todd McFarlane's dark knight-comic book-revenge fantasy Spawn would register just slightly higher than Turbo Rangers and well below the cinematic undead-vendetta high-water mark The Crow. But Leguizamo's performance is just enough of a shot in the arm to carry Spawn through its rather pat plot points. Couple that with director Mark A.Z. Dippé's sometimes frustrating, often dazzling fidelity to the otherworldly comic book form and, lo and behold, viewers can temporarily forget that they've seen this story dozens of times before.

Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is a top-shelf assassin who must fulfill one last mission before he is allowed to leave the secret op life behind and settle down to marital bliss with his beloved wife Wanda. Unfortunately, he is double-crossed and killed by his boss Wynn (played by Martin Sheen, who, it must be said, perfectly captures the two-dimensional vibe of most comic book über-baddies). Simmons, of course, goes to hell for his misdeeds on Earth and strikes a deal with Beelzebub in order to see his wife once again. He returns to the land of the living as Spawn, a sort of mighty morphin' Batman/ass-kicking Quasimodo, who must, once his powers have bloomed fully, lead hell's legions in the ultimate battle for planet Earth.

But our man Spawn has a conscience, you know, and his good heart ultimately spurs him to defeat Satan's representative on Earth, the maggot-eatin', double-dealin' demon clown.

Spawn is chock-full of guilty pleasure, adolescent revenge fantasy moments sure to please anyone who ever ended up on the receiving end of the playground bully's fist. But that entertainment capital is spent too quickly.

The special effects, courtesy of Steve "Spaz" Williams and company, manage to distract the story-hungry viewer from the fact that the film tries to cover too much ground, rushing through pathos, personal relationships, even precious fight sequences (which White carries off impressively), cramming too much into too little. And, though Dippé paints the pictures with an effective, broodingly dark palette, ultimately Spawn feels too much like, well, a comic book. And there's not enough new story to keep anyone but the already converted thrilled.

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