Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Christopher Folino, Todd Burrows
Writer: Christopher Folino
Producer: Christopher Folino, Tyler Endicott, Michael A. Smith, James Sutton, Max Carlson, Eric D. Wilkinson
Stars: Chase Williamson, Ashley Bell, William Katt, Jake Busey, Clint Howard, Clancy Brown
In the late 1940’s, a costumed vigilante rises from disgrace after his life is shattered by a notorious serial killer.
When an independent production tries to make a masked vigilante movie for the film world equivalent of pocket change, you have to wonder if the filmmakers missed the memo that it is no longer the 1990’s. Matte paintings and hand-sewn costumes may have been passable in something like “Doctor Mordrid,” but audiences accustomed to “Avengers,” “Iron Man,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are no longer desperate for comic-book movies like they once were, and their tolerance for anything less than $200 million state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line delivery has dwindled to the size of a peanut.
Not only does “Sparks” ignore this notion and forge ahead anyway, but its story is also set in 1948. Cowls, Capes, and a period piece to boot on a shoestring budget? Based on behind-the-scenes factors alone, “Sparks” has no right to be any good at all. Yet if you can look past tearing seams in the visual effects and an occasionally spotty structure, a solid story and a splendid cast make “Sparks” a surprisingly entertaining superhero alternative to summertime Cineplex fare.
When a chain reaction crash propels the family car into an exploding tanker train, six-year-old Ian Sparks finds himself washed in a bath of mysterious chemicals along with an amalgam of various superhero origins. The death of his parents provides a Batman-like inspiration to train for a life of vigilantism. His Aunt May-esque grandmother offers balance as a matronly conscience. Sparks does not have any real powers that he is aware of, but he lives in a 1940’s noir version of the “Kick-Ass” world, where a handful of well-intentioned do-gooders don disguises to fight crime.
Just as it seems like the setup cannot start off any more derivative, Sparks’ path deviates from that of a traditional costumed hero after he suffers a devastating fall from the limelight. Teamed with the love of his life and partner in crimefighting Lady Heavenly, Ian’s alter ego unravels when he is shot in the head and Heavenly is viciously assaulted by the brutal serial killer Matanza. To make matters worse, Heavenly’s former flame Sledge saves the day, completing Sparks’ public shaming as a total failure.
His love lost and his hero days behind him, Sparks occupies his post-tragedy days with suicidal aspirations and dreams of vengeance. He is unafraid to torture evildoers. He even literally becomes a pimp of sorts. Sparks is a flawed hero in the classic Marvel Comics sense, though his descent into despair goes much deeper, making his arc more understandable and his subsequent redemption that much more dramatic.
“Sparks” teases R-rated themes of sexual assault, prostitution, and serial murder, but these ideas are suggested with tasteful restraint and only employed to deepen the story while grounding it in gravity beyond punching fedora-wearing bank robbers in the face. The film is unrated, but does nothing salacious with its darker tones to earn itself any rating higher than PG-13.
The elephant in the room with “Sparks” is its visual effects. This is a film with super powers set in the 1940’s and it has only one studio location and a pair of green screens to pull it all off. Apparently, just two artists spent many months creating over 500 digitally-enhanced shots. While that makes their feat impressive, it doesn’t change the fact that the movie has blatantly obvious green screen seams, some sketchy crocodile villain makeup, and more than one explosion that is less than spectacular. Things are about as convincing as they can be given the circumstances, but buying into the movie’s believability requires a lot of looking the other way.
Luckily, a highly respectable assembly of onscreen talent teeters that seesaw in the other direction. Chase Williamson is good, although not completely on point for putting Sparks in the ranks of big league comic book icons. Williamson’s forte is his understated Topher Grace-like demeanor and delivery, which worked perfectly in “John Dies at the End” (review here), but his subtlety misses some of the flair required for creating a colorful hero.
Ashley Bell of “The Last Exorcism” (review here) is fashionably gorgeous in period perfect spiral-slide hair curls and femme fatale eyelashes. Clint Howard, Jake Busey, and William Katt appear just enough for their personalities to never become undue distractions while Clancy Brown rounds it all out with the reliability he brings to every appearance he ever makes.
The filmmakers would likely be among the first to agree that “Sparks” is rough around the edges. The clichéd way to summarize it would be to say that like the character himself, “Sparks” puts up a scrappy fight to rise above the black X’s preventing it from fighting head-to-head with the Big Boy competition. The movie lacks high value realism, eye-popping visuals, and the big budget polish that its counterparts have. But what it misses in production quality, “Sparks” makes up for with heart and spirit from a plainly passionate cast and crew. “Sparks” won’t make anyone forget “The Incredible Hulk” or “Man of Steel” anytime soon, but its well-presented story might catch the eye of those willing to take a chance on a small-budget indie.
Review Score: 75