Movie Review: Darkman

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When his lab is attacked and his face burnt, a scientist who was believed to be dead enacts vigilante justice on his attackers.

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Sam Raimi, 1990

Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) has been working for years on his formula to grow synthetic for human skin in order to help burns victims. He’s finally created a perfect mimic, but it only lasts for 99 minutes in the light before it degrades. On the home front, he and his long-time girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), seem happy, though she doesn’t say yes when he asks her to marry him. When Julie discovers a document that uncovers fraud, Peyton’s lab is attacked by mobsters looking for the document. The villainous Durant (Larry Drake) and his henchmen burn Peyton’s hands and dip his face in acid before blowing up the lab. Unbeknownst to Julie, Peyton survives, but is unrecognisable thanks to his burns, and his treatment causes him to lose the sense of touch, as well as making him mentally unstable. Julie moves on with her life, developing a relationship with corrupt developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels). Peyton continues to develop his research into his synthetic skin while also seeking revenge against the men who attacked him.

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Art by John Alvin

This is an interesting cult Sam Raimi film from 1990 that seems to have largely disappeared from the narrative, which is interesting given its place in the superhero canon. Darkman came out just after Tim Burton’s Batman, and it was made by the man who went on to direct the Spider-Man films that set off our current superhero craze. At the time, Raimi had not been chosen to direct a Batman adaptation and could not secure the rights to The Shadow, so he combined them into his own superhero creation. The development of Peyton’s particular brand of justice is one of the film’s strongest points. His ability allows for some genuine humour and some fun for the villains to sneak into the film’s darker tone. Of course, being Raimi, the darker tone also means a significant amount of dark humour and his token weird touches; there are some very odd scene transitions and a healthy dose of cheese to make the grit go down more easily. The concept behind Darkman is a solid one – his origin story is one that inspires genuine sympathy, and his loner persona feels genuine and earned (unlike Batman’s). He’s a sympathetic monster, harkening back to old-school scifi horror like Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde. Darken is a film with a lot of potential, and while it doesn’t completely deliver, it’s an interesting watch.

According to the internet, Frances McDormand pushed for a larger, less traditionally damsel-y role in the film. Julie starts off strong, but winds up being a total damsel – and is the only named female character to boot. She struggles more than Liam Neeson, who is terrific as both Peyton and the unstable Darkman. The moments when he loses himself are loaded with tragic threat, and he manages to handle the sweet, intelligent Jekyll-like personality and the crazed Hyde personality quite well. Larry Drake is especially effective as Durant – in fact, he’s so effective that the opening scene of the film is devoted to him rather than Peyton, creating a sense of lurking threat before establishing our hero. Colin Friels is fine if over-the-top in his magnate role – even in a film where OTT is the aesthetic, he feels like a scenery-chewer. The movie is slow to get moving, but it builds to a satisfying conclusion, and it’s fun.

Darkman on IMDb

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