Darkman (1990)

Darkman is a film straight out of the comic books, even though it’s an original creation of director/writer Sam Raimi. It’s a superhero film, although it contains much less action than you’d expect. There are few action scenes scattered throughout, with a lot more brooding and talking than many other superhero films. That’s fine, and it works well enough here, but I hoped for a little more excitement.

Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), is a scientist working on creating synthetic skin. Problematically, he can only get it to work for 99 minutes, at which point it breaks down. His girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), is an attorney, and after she finds some sheets which shouldn’t be found, her husband’s lab and living accommodation is burned and he is left for dead. In fact, the resulting explosion catapults him into the local river, and while they never find his body, they find “bits and pieces,” which is conclusive enough evidence, I guess. He’s taken to a hospital as a John Doe, undergoes an operation which leaves him unable to feel pain and gives him super strength, escapes, and becomes “Darkman.”

Essentially, since his entire face is burned, the premise of the superhero is this: He uses his fake skin to change his appearance, learn things, and then use this knowledge to take down his enemies. Oh, and the inability to feel pain and the super strength doesn’t help. He wants revenge against the man who did this to him, a mobster named Robert Durant (Larry Drake), reunite with his girlfriend, and perfect the fake skin. Because if he can do that, he can live a normal life again.

The final one of those, the skin creating, takes up far more time than it likely should. Watching him fail over and over again in trying to create a stable isotope gets dull after a while, and in a superhero film, that’s unacceptable. We want to see him take on the bad guys, try to get back with the girl, and dish out some justice. He doesn’t even really become a superhero until the end of the flick; for most of the time, he still has hope that his life will go back to normal.

Darkman is a potentially interesting hero. He can’t feel pain because, in order for his total body burn to not keep him in agony, the doctors stopped the body from transmitting pain to his brain. He gets a constant feed of adrenaline because his brain is starved for attention, or something like that. And, he’s prone to mood swings, feelings of depression and isolation. A fun anti-hero could be made from this. Unfortunately, Darkman is anything but fun.

That’s not to say that the film is devoid of exciting or interesting point, but they’re too few to really amount to anything. There’s one memorable action scene — in which Darkman fights a helicopter — one character turn that’s not exactly surprising but at least the attempt is there … and that’s about it. The rest is by-the-numbers, somewhat dull, and without Raimi’s signature sense of humor and style, would not be worth your time.

However, Raimi is the writer and director of this project, and that can’t be discounted. How many people would ask Liam Neeson to scream at Frances McDormand “Just take the elephant!”? Sam Raimi might be the only one. And while that scene isn’t supposed to be terribly funny — it’s taking part during one of Darkman’s adrenaline-fueled rage-fests, after all — you’re going to have a tough time holding back the laughter. You’ll also be unsurprised to see a Bruce Campbell cameo, and a couple of other touches that only Raimi would put in. He’s having fun with this movie.

That’s also true of pretty much everyone involved. Liam Neeson, who we don’t actually get to see all that much in full form considering his character’s face gets burned off fairly early on, seems to be enjoying his superhero role. Frances McDormand, a good actor, is wasted in the love interest role, especially after she disappears for the better part of the picture. Larry Drake hams it up as the villain who cuts fingers off with a cigar cutter, and keeps a collection. And Colin Friels shows up for a few scenes as McDormand’s character’s boss.

Darkman is certainly a good looking film. Raimi is a director with a keen visual style, and even though it’s a dark movie, he manages to bring some life into it. Occasionally cheesy life, but life nonetheless. Some of the dialogue is juvenile, some of the set-pieces will make you laugh because of how silly they are, but it’s all sleek and cool looking. And the makeup used to make Liam Neeson unrecognizable as a burn victim is phenomenal; you really wouldn’t be able to tell it’s him under there.

Darkman is a film that takes an interesting premise and does little with it. Our hero is worth exploring, but the paint-by-the-numbers plot, along with a lack of action scenes makes the film almost not worth watching. The fun that everyone in front of and behind the camera is what keeps it alive, and Sam Raimi’s personal touches are always fun to look for (look for the Bruce Campbell cameo, which shows up with a wink and a smile), but if you’re looking for a fun action movie, you’re going to want to watch something else.

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