So once again we have survived.

Darkman

I believe you’re all familiar with the director Sam Raimi. You know – kind of a smart ass, wears a tie, master of energetic camerawork, loves the Three Stooges. These days I guess people just think of him as the guy who did the three Spider-man pictures. Nerds curse his name because although the first two touched their hearts and moved their souls the third one was kind of dumb and had a part where he did an evil dance, and apparently in the comic book it is made very clear that the whole point of the Spider-man character is that he would never do an evil dance like that. The Punisher or Blade maybe would do one under the influence of sorcery or an alien ray, but Spider-man – never. So even if Sam Raimi did direct THE EVIL DEAD, EVIL DEAD 2, ARMY OF DARKNESS, SPIDER-MAN, SPIDER-MAN 2, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD and A SIMPLE PLAN it doesn’t matter, that’s all moot now, like Michael Richards’ comedy after he used the n word.

But with this review we gotta transport ourselves back to the early 1990 when Raimi was an underdog, a cult director who had done two drive-in masterpieces and one disowned comedy, and here he was trying to break into the post-BATMAN studio game with a movie that was big budget for him but small compared to the movies it was gonna be held up against. It’s kind of like a comic book movie: a super hero origin story, with music by Danny Elfman, and with ‘man’ in the hero’s name. It’s also kind of a horror movie: he’s a mad scientist and a burnt up Phantom of the Opera type freak whose scarring turns him crazy and murderous. But mostly I think it’s like an action movie: it has R-rated violence, he’s getting revenge one-by-one on the criminals who wronged him, there’s explosions and stunts, and one of the screenwriters is Chuck Pfarrer, the ex-Navy SEAL who wrote NAVY SEALS and HARD TARGET.

DarkmanFuture Academy Award nominee Liam Neeson plays Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on a liquid skin substitute for burn victims. When his girlfriend (future Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) discovers proof that her sleazy boss (Logie award winner Colin Friels) is making bribes Westlake gets caught in the crossfire and a gang of criminals blows up his lab with him inside. Everybody thinks he’s dead but his burnt near-corpse winds up a John Doe in a hospital where the doctors take the liberty of giving him an experimental surgery that severes his nerve endings so he won’t feel the burns. The only negative side effects are that he has lost the sense of touch and that he has very sensitive emotions that can cause him to fly into a blind rage with an adrenaline rush that gives him the strength of ten men. Otherwise everything is fine.

Well, I guess the world’s worst ever living burn victim is lucky that he also happens to be the world’s foremost authority on replacement skin. But not that lucky, because he never perfected the formula, the skin melts after 99 minutes in sunlight. At this point, Westlake has a decision to make. He could tell the doctors look, I remember who I am, I’m Dr. Peyton Westlake. I happen to be an expert in liquid skin. Maybe you could help me to perfect it. If not well, let’s see what we can do here. Put me in rehab, help me to heal. Get me a psychiatrist because the healing on the inside will be even harder. Please, contact my girlfriend. I just proposed to her. She thinks I’m dead.

That would be hard work but you would think that’s what you’d have to do. But Westlake is stubborn. Instead he escapes the hospital ODB style, carts his damaged lab equipment to a condemned building and sets up shop. Later he’ll make himself a mask of what he used to look like and go to his girlfriend and not tell her about his burns. But first to get his confidence up he’ll stalk the thugs who attacked him, disguise himself as them and play elaborate tricks to set them up against each other.

When not disguised Darkman has an iconic phantom kind of look – bandaged face, black hat and trenchcoat. And Neeson does a great job bringing the freak out. With the fake Liam Neeson face he’s sensitive and wounded, in the lab out of disguise he loses it, grunting to himself and his cat, sarcastically dancing like the freak he thinks some imaginary oppressor sees him as. I guess he’s kind of like the Hulk, whoes super power is that he has a short fuse. But Darkman’s catchphrase would be “you wouldn’t like me when my feelings are hurt.”

When he does lose it Raimi lets loose with the visuals he was known for back then. Darkman’s world explodes into a psychedelic collage of flames, smoke, the firing of his own synapses and abstract, traumatic imagery, both real and imagined. Then he can toss people around or break the fingers of an unfriendly but otherwise innocent carnival worker. But to tell you the truth the super strength and lack of pain are not that big a part of what Darkman does. He gets more use out of his masks and his deviousness. And he has the balls to impersonate major crime figures while only knowing how to mimic a few phrases in their voices. And there are always unforeseen complications. He keeps coming mask-to-face with the people he’s disguised as, sometimes on accident, sometimes to fuck with their minds, once in a revolving door so nobody knows which is which.

There’s a great action movie type opening, throwing you into the world of two hardnosed crime bosses having a confrontation that turns into a tribute to the HARD BOILED warehouse shootout and involves a machine gun hidden inside a dude’s wooden leg. It’s quite an introduction for the secondary (but most memorable) villain, Larry Drake as Robert G. Durant. That guy was best known for playing a retarded guy on LA Law, so it was pretty cool to see him playing this arrogant asshole who cuts off fingers with a cigar cutter and collects them in carefully sorted display cases.

When the action comes up it’s good shit. There’s lots of jumping across roofs and fire escapes. In my opinion Dr. Westlake was not only a pioneer in skin replacement technology but also in parkour. The showstopping chase with Darkman hanging from a cable attached to a helicopter keeps switching distractingly to greenscreen-type closeups, but still, these days you watch those other shots and you can’t help but be awed. Holy shit, they really did that! Now they’d have some showoffy digital shot with the camera flying through or around the artificial action, but in 1990 they just filmed a real guy hanging off a real helicopter. And there’s a great part where Durant starts busting off explosive shells trying to hit Darkman and doesn’t give a shit that they’re blowing up cars on the highway below. Darkman doesn’t care too much about collateral damage either judging by his decision to hook the helicopter to some poor schmuck’s semi. Luckily the guy doesn’t seem to notice. He doesn’t even slow down when the chopper crashes and explodes.

Let me describe a shot that sort of sums up what was cool about Raimi back then. Darkman and his girl’s boss face off high above the city in the girders of an incomplete skyscraper. The bad guy mentions how many stories they are up, and the camera does a high-speed pan down the (miniature model) structure, all the way down to the ground – where it shows a cluster of rebar spikes sticking out of the ground ready to impale whoever falls. It looks cool and it’s totally excessive because who gives a shit if you get impaled, you just fell down like a hundred stories and probaly bounced off at least 75 different metal girders. Raimi knows the rebar is unnecessary and he knows that we know it’s unnecessary, but we all have an unspoken agree that it should still be shown. Because that’s how we like it.

DARKMAN has just the right balance of cartoonish over-the-topness and serious melodrama to make the phony bits part of the fun. For example I don’t mind accepting that he can scan any flat photograph to make a 3-D model of somebody’s head, and somehow finds the right clothes to wear with the disguises. If you or I were Darkman we would probaly figure out how to do those things too. This is a great movie of its type. It mixes so many of the best types of stories and gimmicks – the tragic monster, the super hero, the master of disguise, the avenger – into such a unique combination. It’s loaded with clever ideas and imaginative visuals, it has an energetic pace, it even has good acting. I like those SPIDER-MAN movies, I even enjoyed part 3 (sorry everybody), but DARKMAN is way more my speed.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, February 27th, 2009 at 12:08 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “Darkman”

  1. I’ve always thought it was a shame that the sequels were constricted to the DTV ghetto because I always thought Darkman could’ve been a cool series

  2. Especially DTV before DTV even had a chance to be any good. My biggest beef with the DTV was that they missed the perfect opportunity to explain why it was Arnold Vosloo. He should’ve said, “After that, I vowed never to wear my original face again.” He was a superhero who made different faces, but they tried to say Arnold Vosloo was still Liam Neeson! No creativity whatsoever.

    That said, they could still bring him back, use that line for Scott Adkins or someone.

  3. I would love to see them doing a Darkman TV show today. Now that you can even get away outside of HBO and co with a surprisingly huge amount of gore and violence, even normal crime shows have surprisingly high production values, writers are allowed to take risks and create stories that put many theatrical movies ashame and you can get popular actors who are far away from being has-beens for your show, the weekly all new adventures of Darkman have the potential to be a whole lot of fun.
    Too bad that no suit would dare to produce a series, based on an almost forgotten movie from the early 90’s. (Y’know, brand recognition and stuff.)

  4. Nice review. Just watched this last night for the first time, you can get the whole god damn trilogy on Amazon for like a dollar plus shipping(me thinks that’s a good deal).

    Probably my second favorite Raimi flick now after Evil Dead 2. His fingerprints are just all over every scene in this movie, and I love his fast paced energetic style of directing. No other director could have pulled off the scene at the carnival the way Raimi did, with the laughing toy elephants and the scenery fracturing away in the background. Some really creative visual effects throughout the entire movie.

    And I can’t say enough about the make-up. Liam Neeson really transforms into this hideously burned freak he thinks he is. His chin and mouth area were particularly amazing to me, with the exposed bone and teeth. I’ve never really been a huge Liam Neeson(yes I realize he’s a great actor in shit like Michael Collins and Kinsey) fan but I’m now on board after this and Taken.

    IMDB says that Raimi wanted Bruce Campbell for this originally but the producers weren’t sure he could carry the film. Well I say fuck that, Bruce would have been AMAZING in this movie. Lots of scenes seem like they were written specifically for Bruce i.e The dancing sequence in the lab, the carnival, others(?). It was cool to get him for the cameo at the end though. That’s something.

    All in all an eight out of ten for me and Im really looking forward to the sequels although I hear they are shit. Number three has Jeff Fahey though as the villain, so that’s legit. And number two is titleD The Return of Darabont? How’s that work, I’m no expert on fire and explosions etc. but that dude like flew into a bridge in a helicopter and totally exploded in a big ball of flames. And Darkman was all like “FUUUUCK YOU(paraphrasing)”

  5. Check out my reviews – the sequels are actually some of the better DTV sequels, especially part 3 which was written by the FACE/OFF writers Colleary and Werb, and which Werb recently told us was written after FACE/OFF because Raimi was a fan of that script.

    Of course, the first one is so good it might help to put a little distance between viewing that and the sequels. But as far as DTV I wholeheartedly endorse them.

  6. I watched this tonight and man, this is a great little movie

    that scene where Darkman flips out at the carnival was HILARIOUS! I could not stop laughing, “just take the fucking elephant!”

    and the scene where he runs into the mob boss while disguised as him was hilarious as well

    and the Bruce Campbell cameo at the end was really cool, the whole movie I was wondering if he would pop up somewhere and there he is right at the very end

  7. oh, I almost forgot, cool Danny Elfman score too

  8. dieselboy–

    i second your admiration for westlake’s makeup in DARKMAN. it was so good i sort of lost track of some of the movie because i kept thinking how much more i like this than the Two Face stuff from THE DARK KNIGHT.

  9. I just rewatched this for the first time since ye olde VHS days, but this time on DVD. There is still something magical about seeing a movie for the first time in damn good picture quality and widescreen. For example, I never noticed the nice little touch with Darkman’s eyes, whenever he wore someone else’s mask. When the actors are supposed to play Darkman wearing their face, they wear sliiiiightly fake looking contact lenses. It’s not obvious, but weird enough to make you notice that something is wrong. Also Larry Drake is cross eyeing a little when he plays Darkman or is played by Darkman or whatever, you know what I mean.

    I suspect that Tom Cruise is a huge fan of that movie (or maybe someone else who worked on the first two M:I movies), since the bad guys in here not just get dispatched by strapping their helicopter to a moving vehicle (Here a truck, in M:I 1 a train) and in M:I 2 there is a scene where Cruise let the bad guys shoot one of their buddies, by putting a Tom Cruise mask on him. Just like Darkman does here.

    But the most important thing is: DARKMAN is still a lot of fun. It’s a nice mix of comic book visuals and 80s/early 90s action, with a great Neeson performance.

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