Sunday, March 16, 2014

Darkman: Raimi’s Other Superhero Film

Sam Raimi is probably best known to superhero fans as the director of three Spider Man films starring Tobey Maguire, or to horror fans for helming the two Evil Dead movies. But there’s another film on his resume that combined elements of both genres, and it retains a cult following to this day. That movie is 1990’s Darkman. In the wake of Tim Burton’s successful take on Batman in 1989, studios were looking to produce more comic book based tales. Raimi had long wanted to direct a superhero film, and had unsuccessfully tried to secure the rights to Batman or The Shadow. He came up with a story that mixed elements of both of those heroes with a touch of classic horror stories like The Phantom of the Opera, Franenstein, and The Mummy, and nods to the crime & thriller genres as well.
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, Taken) is developing a new type of synthetic skin that he hopes will aid burn victims. His girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand, Fargo) is investigating corruption & bribery linked to a construction project. One night, a mobster named Robert G. Durant breaks into Westlake’s home/lab looking for incriminating documents in Julie's possession. He & his henchmen kill Westlake’s assistant, and destroy the lab in an explosion. But Westlake doesn’t die, though he is horribly scarred & burned. He uses his synthetic skin to masquerade as members of Durant’s gang, and exacts revenge on the men who destroyed his life; but can he reveal himself to Julie (who believes he’s dead) in his present form? Can she still love him now that he’s a monster? And what does becoming "Darkman" do to his fragile psyche?

The fast paced story combines elements of the superhero genre, crime dramas, and the Universal horror films of the 30s & 40s. Neeson is excellent as the tormented Westlake, and Larry Drake (then best known for his work on L.A. Law as Benny) almost steals the show as the evil Durant. As with all of Raimi’s films, the movie is visually dazzling, aided by Bill Pope’s cool, kinetic cinematography. You can see the roots of the style, look & offbeat humor Raimi developed & brought to later projects such as the Spider Man movies and 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful taking shape in this film. The inventive (pre-CGI) makeup effects by Tony Gardner give the character of Darkman a unique look, and add to the success of the movie. There's also a fantastic score by the talented Danny Elfman.

Darkman will probably be most enjoyed by genre fans who like the films and stories that inspired Raimi to write & develop the project. The movie is a fun, over the top tale with action, humor & a touch of pathos. It’s certainly one of the better superhero stories that came out after Batman (1989), when the studios were scrambling to capitalize on that hit film. If you're looking for a live action movie that captures the essence of a comic book, look no further. And for those who thought Neeson's tenure as an action hero started with Taken, you're in for a pleasant surprise.  Darkman doesn’t try to be any more than what it is: a B-movie that mixes the comic book, pulp & horror genres to spin an entertaining tale. The film led to two direct-to-video sequels in 1995 & 1996, but Neeson did not return for the follow-ups. The original movie has recently been re-released in a nifty Blu-ray special edition that includes new interviews with Neeson, McDormand & Drake, an audio commentary by director of photography Pope, and various featurettes. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Trivia note: Look fast at the film's conclusion for a cameo by frequent Raimi collaborator Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Burn Notice).

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