A hideously scarred and mentally unstable scientist seeks revenge against the crooks who made him like that.
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“Darkman” is one of the lesser-known superhero films, and it’s definitely one of the least conventional. Sure, it’s got the basics: the wronged superhuman hero, the compassionate love interest, and the colourful villains. In fact, with its stylized cityscapes and brooding Danny Elfman score, “Darkman” might look like Sam Raimi’s answer to “Batman.” Yet despite these similarities, this is a different kind of hero and a different kind of movie.
Dr. Payton Westlake creates an artificial skin, but finds it doesn’t last very long when exposed to the light. When his girlfriend Julie stumbles upon documents tying her boss to the criminal underworld, Payton suffers the consequences: his assistant is killed, his lab is destroyed, and he is horrifically burned and left for dead. Rescued by doctors, Payton undergoes an experimental procedure that disables his ability to feel pain. However, this has some dangerous side effects: Payton’s physical strength increases, and his brain now feeds nonstop on rage.
After escaping from the hospital, Payton sets out to perfect masks of synthetic skin in order to exact his revenge on those who harmed him…and to conceal his disfigurement from Julie.
Director Sam Raimi has a serious talent for superhero films, as evidenced by the “Spider-Man” trilogy. However, Raimi got his start with campier, darker work like the “Evil Dead” movies, and that’s the approach he takes in “Darkman.” Everything is wild and over-the-top, from the action scenes to the acting, but Raimi makes it all work. It has the lurid feeling of a comic book, even though the character Darkman never had a graphic novel of his own. When Raimi couldn’t secure the rights to The Shadow, he and his team of writers created a similar hero over whom they had complete creative control. So, Raimi is free to take the character in whichever direction he chooses, and interestingly, he chooses to plant him in “antihero” territory.
Raimi’s cast gets into the spirit of things, ably tackling the melodramatic material. Liam Neeson does an excellent job as Payton Westlake/Darkman, making a convincing transformation from nice guy to instrument of revenge. Neeson delivers a passionate performance despite the restrictions of the Darkman make-up. Even when the character dons a mask modeled on his original face, Neeson doesn’t take the easy way out: even if the exterior looks like Payton, the voice and body language are strictly Darkman.
As Julie, Frances McDormand is a refreshing change from the kind of love interest you usually see in superhero films. She clearly has a brain, and when Payton asks her if she could love a disfigured man, it’s interesting to hear her admit that she isn’t sure if she could.
Colin Friels brings a real theatricality to the role of Strack, Julie’s power-hungry boss and the true source of all Payton’s misery. Strack relies on the power of persuasion, but when it comes down to it, he isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty.
The other standout is Larry Drake as sophisticated crime-lord Robert G. Durant. Drake plays Durant as a psychopath with taste, who may have a thing for taking his victims’ fingers, but darned if he doesn’t keep those little trophies in a velvet-lined case.
Also, who’s that making a last-second cameo? Why, it’s Bruce Campbell!
The Darkman make-up represents a marvellous team effort. Remarkably, rather than making it obvious that layers have been added to Neeson’s face, the make-up team actually makes it look like layers have been stripped away to reveal the muscle and bone beneath. Darkman is often swathed in bandages, providing only intriguing glimpses of the disfigurement beneath. Top that off with a fedora, and that’s one cool character design.
Danny Elfman’s score has the composer’s usual flair, and with its bombastic brass section, there’s more than a passing resemblance to Elfman’s work in 1989’s “Batman.” However, “Darkman” has elements of a tragic romance, and its score reflects that with some really beautiful, sad melodies.
In the effort to show that superhero movies can stand up with “serious” films, filmmakers sometimes seem reluctant to embrace the “silly” elements of the genre. So, it’s interesting to look back on “Darkman” and see a very quirky movie that mirrors its unusual protagonist’s personality: theatrical, unhinged, and not afraid to have fun.