Movie Review: Darkman (dir. by Sam Raimi)

As I haven’t been to the movies lately, I’m working on reviews of older films I’ve seen.

A long time ago, just after Tim Burton’s Batman and before Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Sam Raimi came up with the idea of making his own superhero movie. Supposedly, he had tried to get a hold of both Batman and The Shadow (which eventually went on to Highlander’s Russell Mulcahy), but wasn’t able to. As a result, Darkman was created. I never mind watching it or recommending it, as long as the viewer realizes they’re not shooting for Oscar Winning material here.

Darkman was a strange film. It wasn’t really marketed very well, evidenced in the simple “Who is Darkman?” posters that I remembered seeing on the sides of buses. I don’t recall there being any kind of commercials for the movie. While the movie did alright (and even spawned 2 sequels), I never thought of it as a great success. It still is, despite its flaws, a good film. Well, for someone at 15, it was good.

In Darkman, Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a gifted scientist that has just about everything. He has a great girlfriend in Julie (Frances McDormand), who’s doing well in her job and he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough in developing a new synthetic skin. If he could only solve the problem where the skin apparently decays in light after 99 minutes. Soon after realizing the flaw in his project, he is attacked a group of criminals (lead by Larry Drake in a great role), burned with his own chemicals and his lab is set ablaze. Left for dead, he’s found and brought to a hospital. They’re able to confirm that he’ll live, but he’s also horribly scarred, has no sensation in his nerves (meaning he feels no pain), and will need skin grafts for the rest of this life. The result of all this trauma is also a bit of mental damage. Westlake breaks free of the hospital, resurrects his lab, and decides to get revenge for what was done to him. The synthetic skin technique now allows him to assume the appearance of anyone he chooses (as long as he has a picture of them, of course). He can wear a disguise for up to 99 minutes in direct sunlight, else his face begins to melt.

One thing I like about some of Sam Raimi’s films is that they’re just strange in some ways. Not Cronenberg strange (that’s just creepy sometimes), but they tend to have some weird elements. He likes to throw things into the camera, whether it’s someone’s face or an object. He’s also into these extreme zoom shots where he’ll have the camera low and bring it racing towards it’s subject. At the time the movie came out, my parents gave me a Camcorder. I did a lot of similar shots, chasing the cats around the house with the camera hovering a few inches off of the floor. I’ll admit it, it was pretty effective here.

Some of the acting was okay in Darkman. I particularly liked Larry Drake at the time because he seemed so different from the character he played on L.A. Law at the time, but everyone else here seemed like they were playing up their roles and in some cases, taking themselves far more seriously than they should have. Some scenes didn’t even make sense to me and felt like filler. I get that Westlake was just a little bonkers, but the whole “See the Dancing Freak” song and dance routine kind of left me with a “What the hell?” expression. Frances McDormand seemed to almost whine on cue (though I guess if I had a love one come back from the dead, I’d be a little shocked too). Colin Friels’ villain caused my family to collectively snicker and groan when at one part, he exclaims “Because I built it!!! I built it all!!” It was just all very strange. M. Night Shyamalan did something similar with The Happening, but for me, this really worked better in Darkman’s favor. Since the acting is so campy, the movie never really tries to make itself out to be Dark Knight / Captain America piece.

If you’re looking at it logically, there’s really no way that Westlake should have been able to pull off half of the disguises he used. You’ve height and weight to consider, and last I checked, Liam Neeson and Larry Drake really had two different body types. Where’d he get all the extra bulk, one has to wonder? Extra clothing, perhaps?

If Darkman has anything going for it, it’s the music. At the time, Danny Elfman was riding the high he had off of movies like Batman, Midnight Run, Dick Tracy and Nightbreed. While Edward Scissorhands remains the strongest score he had that year, Darkman has a number of nice action cues mixed with some somber tones. It helps to carry the film, somewhat.

Overall, Darkman was an interesting look at Sam Raimi’s approach to a superhero. It may have also been one of the key factors in securing the directing duties on the Spider-Man movies in the early 2000’s, which was far superior to this film. If nothing else, it’s worth a laugh or two.