Here’s a hearty keep-at-it award for Christopher Folino and Todd Burrows, directors of this restless, reckless superhero crime curio, an on-the-cheap indie that feels like a couple years’ worth of some noirish throwback comic book series shredded up and fed into one of those machines where dollar bills fly around and the contestant inside has to grab them. Before you’ve even quite grokked who’s who and what’s what, everyone and everything get revealed as something different still. That’s a shame, since at least one of the surprises would be a Vertigo meets Oldboy meets The Empire Strikes Back doozy if it were carefully built toward rather than left for us to snatch from the tumult. I only realized the full walloping ick of it a scene later, when the movie was off chasing after something else entirely.
What’s encouraging, though: Lots of those pages whipping around are good. Some thrillingly so, like in the early sequence when hero Sparks (Chase Williams) and his impressive partner, Lady Heavenly (Ashley Bell), pick their way through a grisly multi-room crime scene. The shots are assembled with the look, logic, and power of a well-designed comic-book spread, each panel communicating something vital via one singular image, the borders between them delineated by flashes of what may have happened before. The crisp clarity of those images, and the significant gap as one cuts to the next, invite viewers to imagine along the way that actual comics do, evidence of a playful spirit at odds with the film’s clear antecedent, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City. (That clanging, claustrophobic, panel-minded flick was full of tough-guy louts who love the idea of rescuing imperiled women yet can’t actually stand to be around them.)
Like Sin City, Sparks is a grim period piece where the worst thing a woman can do is have any kind of relationship whatsoever to the stubbornly uncharismatic protagonist. The hero, busting heads in low-key super PJs, comes freighted with the usual orphan’s backstory; he’s seeking vengeance, etc., on a world of crime mostly because that’s what heroes in comics decide to do. In a D.O.A.–style framing device, he tells a reporter, “I believed it was my fate to protect others, proof right there that I was a moron at an early age.” He has no special powers, we’re told, but we do see him get doused in mysterious industrial fluid in a repeating childhood flashback, so be ready for a twist.
Once he debuts in Manhattan, Sparks quickly wins over strawberry-blonde bombshell Lady Heavenly, who partners and shacks up with him so quick he must really be impressive in some way the movie doesn’t bother to show us. Maybe she grabbed some pages we didn’t. As Lady Heavenly, Bell is tremendously appealing, a masked beauty whose smile and dimples manage to outshine her exposed abs. After a pleasurable montage of them kicking ass together in their charmingly old-school costumes, taking on “thugs, gangs, and bindlestiffs,” Sparks and Lady Heavenly track down the serial killer responsible for that earlier crime scene. Then things get don’t-bring-the-kids dark, with screaming, shock cuts, and implied rape and torture, the kind of queasy pulp nonsense Sin City and video game designers mistake for “mature” themes.
After that, the story spins off in too many directions to describe, some winning — ever wondered what sex with a shape-shifter would be like? — and some so puerile they’re hilarious. Sparks becomes an adman for a reel, and that same shape-shifter, played with marvelous got-a-secret weariness by Marina Squerciati, can only score $20 a night as a prostitute, despite her ability to take on any human form she chooses.
Such madness — and, perhaps, such a dim view of the ingenuity of women — would likely have been stomped out if Sparks had been worked over by the studio execs who ensure that most cape-and-mask flicks share identical story beats. (The women in Marvel movies don’t turn tricks; they support their fellas and never get spun off into sequels, even if they’re Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.) Co-director Folino is adapting his own comic series, and there’s something almost refreshing about the unreconstructed grubbiness of Sparks‘ boyish fantasy. It’s a reminder of the raw truth lurking beneath scenes of Spider-Man saving Gwen or Mary Jane from PG-13 dangers: To imagine men saving women, you first must imagine those women suffering, and that, for some guys, is part of the pleasure. Sparks‘ rough, nervy play feels more honest to whatever wretched human impulse has for so long made such stories so appealing to so many.
Not that Sparks needs more grimness. It has too many scenes of betrayal and torture already. This comic noir is best when it’s more comic, in both senses of the word. While ka-powing some muggers early on, Lady Heavenly drops into the splits and then, in the same graceful shot, subjects an assailant to a spectacular crotch kick, a dancer’s move I hope someone .gifs some day. Later, the shape-shifter attempts to seduce Sparks, using her powers to seal the deal and send up many old movies about obsessive P.I. types haunted by a woman they’ve lost. It’s a perfect demonstration of the strange, surprising inventiveness comic-book movies could aspire to. Too bad that instead of being developed, it’s just a fascinating scrap fluttering about with all the others.