Darkman (1990)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sam Raimi’s “Darkman” is a rarity in the movies—a superhero story that didn’t used to be a comic book series at first. It feels like it could be a comic book series, or a graphic novel series, and has fun with its energetic story and appealing “origin story.” Every superhero requires an origin story—how the hero gained his or her powers or skill—and “Darkman” is a doozy from the start. It gets stranger as it goes along, but that’s what makes it so entertaining. It’s engaging from beginning to end.

“Darkman” opens with criminals making deals and killing off those who disappoint. One bad guy in particular has a weird habit of breaking (severing) his victim’s fingers and keeping them as trophies in a small case, like a jewelry box. Strange enough, but then we’re introduced to our protagonist—a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who is developing a new type of artificial skin to help burn victims. The experiment isn’t going very well, as the skin disintegrates after being exposed to light for 99 minutes.

We know that these two plot elements are going to come together soon enough. That they’re both equally strange story aspects keeps you curious about how they’ll be handled once the meat of the story kicks in.

Anyway, as dumb luck would have it, just as Peyton discovers that the best way the skin can stabilize if it stays in darkness (apparently, this synthetic skin is photosensitive), this is when his laboratory is invaded by mobsters who know he has an important document that proves that a real-estate developer is bribing members of the zoning commission (and wouldn’t you know it—Peyton’s girlfriend Julie, played by Frances McDormand, is an attorney who was responsible for the document).

Are you getting all of this? Are you still with me? If so, you’re a bright reader.

So the bad guys blow up Peyton’s lab and Peyton is horribly burned alive. He survives the tragic ordeal and escapes from the hospital, but his face and hands are horribly disfigured. Oh, and a lot of his nerves are severed, so he can’t feel pain. To exact revenge on the people who did this to him, he creates a new lab in a condemned building to make new masks. He makes one of his original face so he can be with Julie again, though not telling her of his condition. Other masks are created for his enemies—he can observe them and study them, and then use the masks to become them one-by-one, in order to thwart them. The problem is he has only 99 minutes with each mask.

This leads to some fun comic scenes in which Peyton keeps his cover while impersonating these people. And give credit to the actors for imitating Liam Neeson imitating them. In particular, there’s Larry Drake, who plays a mobster who catches Peyton in disguise. Playing against himself (if you will) is a challenge and it confuses us as well as the henchman who is trying to figure which one is which. (My favorite moment in the film is when they’re both held at gunpoint and one of them shouts, “Shoot him!” while the other shouts “Shoot him!”)

“Darkman” has fun with its creative storytelling and unique visual style—the kind that Raimi has specialized in the “Evil Dead” movies (particularly the second one, which had an appealingly bizarre visual taste). “Darkman” has that hazy, dim comic-book look resembling a dark Batman tale and goes about with neat, tricky shots of people or objects popping into the frame and out and intriguing camera angles that keep action scenes not only exciting but also comic. Nicely-handled special effects help as well.

Liam Neeson, as the conflicted hero Peyton, is solid. He makes an interesting individual to follow in this superhero tale and does great work at showing the lighter and darker sides of this person who has lost his looks, restored his intelligence, but also struggles with the feeling of revenge, whether or not he can control it. At one point, he’s on a date with Julie at a fair and gets angry for a simple thing such as a worker stiffing him from a prize, and his anger which comes from previous experience with his enemies, comes through in an effective way. Neeson is well-cast here, and so is Frances McDormand as Julie, who is consistently appealing and shares some good chemistry with the hero.

One major problem I have with “Darkman” is that Peyton never really becomes Darkman. It’s said at the beginning that Peyton’s masks are only stabilized in darkness, and yet he’s constantly using them in the daylight. This means that this never becomes a crucial point of the plot and so the film doesn’t have a clear motivation. Maybe “Darkman” should have begun right at the end, when Peyton realizes who and what he is.

But then again, now that I think about it, maybe I didn’t want “Darkman” to be so simple that Peyton would actually use his replicating inventions in the dark when it’d be easier. If he did that, we wouldn’t have a constant troublesome conflict of having to be rid of a mask after 99 minutes before he gets caught. And of course, this means “Darkman” wouldn’t be as much fun.

And that’s what “Darkman” is—fun. It’s an intriguing mix of superhero origin story and unique visuals. It’s its own creation for film, not based on a comic book, and it’s quite an effective thrill ride.

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