ON DVD AND BLU-RAY: 7th April
RUNNING TIME: 94 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1920, a radioactive meteor strikes Earth, killing 230 people and contaminating 75 with an unknown form of radiation. Eventually only 13 of the affected people survive and, gaining super powers, call themselves the Rochester 13 and, with one exception, use their gifts to fight crime. When his parents are killed in a car crash, Ian Sparks grows up into someone who also wants to battle villainy. When he moves from his home town to the big city, he finds it somewhat harder to win against crooks, but luckily he teams up with, and falls hard for, the beautiful Lady Heavenly. The unstoppable duo quickly decimates the city’s army of thugs but then find themselves up against the nation’s most twisted arch-villain and it soon looks like they may lose everything……
What with Marvel seemingly intent on world domination, super heroes have never been as prevalent on the big screen as they are now and, though the occasional non-Marvel outing such as The Green Lantern does disappointing business, their overall popularity seems at an all-time high. You only need to glance at the movie news on sites such as Digital Spy to be bombarded with the latest gossip about which character will be in what film, or [for goodness sake] what design a character’s costume is. For this writer, it’s all getting a bit much and, while I do always drag myself along to the next Thor or Iron Man adventure, the films tend to be very samey and sometimes constricted in feel [though two upcoming projects do look rather interesting it must be said], as fun as they usually are. Occasionally though a movie comes along that tries to do something new with the idea of costumed crusaders like Watchmen and Kick-Ass, two films that seem to inform Sparks quite a bit, though you’d think by now that everything that could be done with the premise has been done.
Now I did have second thoughts when I asked for a screener of Sparks, which is…..another superhero movie, though as soon as the film started those thoughts went away. Sparks is an independent production that has been made for very little money. Now these days, if you want to make your first movie then a superhero one seems like a good idea considering how popular it could be, though it’s hard to make a Batman or Spiderman movie for what is probably lunch money on the set of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, so directors Christopher Folino, whose graphic novel forms the basis for this film, and Todd Burrows seem to be asking for trouble. However, their film is surprisingly successful at stretching its budget as far as it can go. It helps that it has a very good and involved storyline which often makes you forget the lack of big action scenes or spectacular special effects. The backdrops of a film which was entirely shot in one studio are obviously nearly all green screen but it kind of works for what is quite a stylised piece, while the many computer generated explosions…o the explosions….well, they look bloody awful and a couple of times almost came close to taking me out of the film, but I’ve seen stuff nearly as bad in some expensive Hollywood pictures and it doesn’t seem so bad when you learn that only two, yes two, people were responsible for all the effects in the film.
Sparks is not stunningly original, but it does have a freshness right from the offset and the fact that it was clearly a labour of love does radiate from the screen. The titles occur over staged and real newsreel shots telling us about the meteor that has hit Earth and what has resulted from it. We move from 1920 through quite a few years to a mostly off-screen multiple killing, the perpetrator of which is Kevin Sherwood, one of the Rochester 13, and then to a scene which this lover of old film noirs adored where, as in the 1950 classic DOA, someone, Ian Sparks, staggers into somewhere [a police station in the black and white movie, a newspaper office in Sparks] and tells the person at the desk: “I want to report a murder….mine”! The film is now actually set in 1948 and it does do a reasonable job of convincing you of the fact. The details are quite minor but they are enough, though of course the characters behave just like characters in a comic book movie rather than in anything resembling real life. Like much film noir, the main character narrates much of the film in flashback, though star Chase Williamson doesn’t really have the voice for it, while the story soon begins to pile on twist after twist, so much so that you really need to pay attention!
Sparks moves extremely quickly, perhaps too quickly in some of the early scenes. By the time twenty minutes have passed, we’ve seen Sparks grow from a child to a adult [“I celebrated my 15th birthday by cleansing the town of thugs”], meet the woman of his dreams, team up with her to fight crime, and fall in love. The romance aspect especially suffers here, it all rushing by so fast that we don’t care as much as we should, and some other scenes don’t have the impact they should. Even later on, Sparks sometimes seems like a longer film cut down to the bare essentials, though I doubt very much that this was the case for such a cheap production which would not have been able to waste much footage. Now this probably sounds like I didn’t enjoy Sparks and I did. It’s somewhat refreshing to have a film running 94 minutes which packs in more plot than all three of Marvel’s latest efforts put together, and those 94 minutes do fly by. What seems like a variation on Kick-Ass, with initially much of that film’s idealism, soon turns into a much darker, murkier story, full of disillusionment, where most people just aren’t who they seem and a new revelation is round the corner every ten minutes, while even being a superhero doesn’t mean you’re actually going to do good. Of course the idea of superheroes being vigilantes has been done before, but this film really seems to explore it. Sparks is set in a world where a superhero mission doesn’t just end in killing the target but everybody else nearby too, and where a superhero becomes a pimp prostituting his ex-girlfriend. After a while, you just don’t think of these people as superheroes [and supervillains], they’re just flawed and rounded people, and though I could have done with some scenes lasting more than a minute, by the end I rather cared about them.
The action consists mostly of lots of reasonable fighting, usually seen in montages, those damn explosions and one really cool chase in old cars where guns are being fired at each other. Directors Christopher Folino and Todd Burrows, plus Josh Fritts and Jackson Myers their cinematographers, and Max Carlson their editor, deserve a huge amount of praise for allowing us to see the action properly rather than chopping it up into lots of little pieces and shaking the camera about, as has virtually become the norm now. Folino and Burrows also have a knack for suggesting nastiness without showing us much detail. The best example of this is a rape scene where a woman is chained up and assaulted while her boyfriend watches. We don’t really see anything, yet still get the horror of what is occurring. The film is actually quite coy about some things, but has some interesting situations, such as a part of the story that has Sparks have a relationship with a woman who can take on the form of whoever she touches and takes on the appearance of his lost love. Though Ashley Bell is the main female star, it was the lovely Marina Squerciati who impressed me more, making a strong impact with her tragic character. Sadly much of the acting is just average – Chase Williamson seems a little lost in his part despite having made such a good impression in John Dies At The End – though Clancy Brown, Jake Busey and William Katt all have substantial roles. Once again Brown is the tough guy you love to hate, and he does it so well.
The score by Jacob Shea, an employee of Hans Zimmer’s dreaded Remote Control film scoring factory, is extremely underwhelming. Overall though it’s quite easy to forgive the flaws that Sparks has. It shows that a superhero film can be made for very little money and yet be good enough to stand tall with the blockbuster efforts that dominate our multiplexes, even if it has sadly bypassed cinemas and gone straight to home viewing. It doesn’t, and can’t, offer state of the art effects, or mind blowing visuals, or big stars. What it does have instead is that inspiring thrill that you often get when a bunch of people decided to just go off and make the film they wanted to make and not let the small matter of not having much cash hold them back.
* The Making of Sparks
* Unseen Scene
* Audio Commentary