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and Juan Carlos Tabío

Everyone who is even mildly interested in the live-action film version of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn saw it over the opening weekend—fans of the original comic book, the fantasy-violence boys (they’re all boys), and the mildly curious comics-fringers like me who marvel that there are so many versions of something that might as well not exist at all.

In addition to the beautifully drawn but stultifyingly slow graphic incarnation, there’s the poorly drawn and sluggish HBO cartoon, and now this loud, expensive, grindingly awful thing with real live actors who might as well be pencil sketches, for all their personality. If someone who never had high hopes for Spawn the anything could be so repelled by this movie—the belly decal is long gone, the scar from where I gouged it out of my flesh healing nicely, thank you—what do McFarlane’s fans think?

McFarlane can draw—he’s the smart kid who revamped, or rather unvamped, the ’80s pumped-and-pec’d Spiderman back into his agile old self—but he doesn’t care for plot, and it shows in his incoherent, interminable story lines. For a while, McFarlane elided the problem by hiring different great comics writers from issue to issue, but Spawn the movie’s story tells again how Spawn the creature came to be and what he’s doing here. It makes no more sense on the big screen than it did in the comic or on HBO, but here goes:

Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is an operative for a shadowy organization that blows up foreign stuff. After he is assassinated by his colleagues, he goes to hell, where computer-generated weirdness distracts the audience until we learn that it’s five years later and Simmons, now Spawn, has agreed to lead hell’s army in exchange for the chance to see his wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) once more.

In the meantime, Wanda has married Simmons’ former partner. To make things worse, he doesn’t even remember making a deal with the devil, and he’s pestered by a disgusting fat Clown (John Leguizamo) with a mouthful of teeth almost as repellent as Daniel Day-Lewis’ in The Crucible. When the Clown isn’t cracking wise with omni-referential catch phrases that are supposed to sound hip but were already tired when Robin Williams’ irritating genie got to them, he’s morphing into a huge dragonlike creature with dripping fangs. Either that or emitting fluorescent green farts.

When Clown turns into a dragon, Spawn is forced to fight him. It’s unclear what their frequent, overlong bouts have to do with convincing Spawn to lead hell’s army; maybe it’s like basic training. Spawn is also bothered by appearances by Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson, kill your agent), the soul of a dead Crusader who keeps telling Spawn that he can welsh on his compact any time, an act of improbity not even the devil himself considers. During all this, Spawn is trying to hunt down Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), the man who ordered his killing. But Clown has fixed it so that if Wynn’s heart stops, bombs filled with deadly Heat-16 will destroy the world. (A little Ice-9 ought to take that swelling down.)

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As part of his Spawn work, the former Al Simmons possesses a number of extraordinary powers—his body has become an arsenal, his skin a shield. He can sprout a cape that covers a city block. It should be interesting that, whatever Spawn is, earthling Simmons was black, but it isn’t. In a bit of colorblindness that is at the very least disingenuous, Simmons’ race is treated as a nonissue. (Kids! Get your first post-affirmative-action figure!)

But Spawn squanders everything it’s got. The script is numbingly horrible. How’s this for stupid: Spawn and a leather-clad evil chick, an ex-colleague from Shadowy Inc., are ack-acking at each other with comically oversize weapons, when Spawn gets her in a vulnerable position. As he aims, leathergirl sneers, “You don’t have the guts.” Not only has he been shooting at her for the last five minutes, but this is what he does for a living, a fact she well knows since she got his old job! It’s scenes like this that make Spawn so much fiery orange wallpaper.

“Guantanamera,” the country girl from Guantanamo in this vibrant Cuban fairy tale, is Georgina, who senses that she has taken the wrong direction but that it is too late to go back and retrieve the life she wanted. She does, though, at the very end of her life, dying in her should-have-been lover’s arms. She also switches direction midway and bicycles off in the rain with the man who has always loved her.

Georgina accomplishes these things by being two women, vivacious Aunt Yoyita (Conchita Brando), who went off to Havana as a young woman and left behind the faithful, gallant Candido (Raúl Eguren), and her niece (Mirtha Ibarra), married to Adolfo (Carlos Cruz), a judgmental martinet whose reward for years of gray government loyalty was a post as Guantanamo’s town undertaker.

Adolfo develops a plan that may seem like a parody of red-tape intricacy to moviegoers not familiar with Washington, D.C.: To save on fuel costs, a corpse needing transport to its final resting place should be driven through each town by its local undertaker and handed off as many times as necessary. When Aunt Yoyita, visiting Georgina and the yearned-for Candido, dies in Candido’s embrace, she becomes the first subject of this experiment. Accompanied by Georgina, Candido, and a driver, Adolfo must escort this hated relative (he thought her a loose woman) back to Havana.

Directors Alea and Tabío (the makers of Strawberry and Chocolate; Alea died in 1996) orchestrate this journey using a refreshing pastoral lexicon of road-movie conventions. The cortege forms an ambling trickle up Cuba, turning back once (when a woman in labor stumbles across the road) and stalling, stopping, or pausing while Adolfo’s splendid Stalinesque mustache bristles and he screams about punctuality. Following the same route is a truck driven by Mariano (Jorge Perugorría), a former student of Georgina’s who has been in love with her for years.

Everyone is moving toward something; Havana is obviously not the destination the deceptively down-to-earth script has in mind. Along the way, the principals switch vehicles and allegiances. Mariano is waylaid by the various women he has staked out along his usual route, and his co-driver gets whacked in the eye by what Mariano later claims was “una vaca,” which is true, in a way. Candido, harassed by Adolfo’s violence and ugliness as well as by visions of Iku, master of death, in the guise of a golden-ringleted little girl, decides on public transportation. And Georgina and Mariano come together and swerve apart over and over, widening the way for her to make the break with her rigid husband.

In spite of the directors’ loyalty to the government (Alea helped found the government film school), Guantanamera isn’t an idealized vision of a perfect system. Bureaucracy is rampant, and the soldiers and the poor bear an uneasy coexistence. But the movie is not interested in making political points; the richness of life that the members of the little procession see along Cuba’s main artery is a macrocosm of the emotional diversity inside each of them. As the soundtrack, like a wailing Greek chorus, reiterates and comments on the story, each of them must decide who they really are, and where they’re really going.CP