Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)
American director Sam Raimi, having made a solid name for himself for the better part of 30 years, is really something of an entrepreneur, a go-getter who makes his films happen despite either scepticism or lack of genuine funds. Despite his numerous successes, it seems as though his name shall never resonate among the wider movie going public or cinefile circles as strongly as, say, Steven Soderberg or Steven Spielberg. No, it unfortunately safe to assume that apart from his fanbase and well versed film buffs, his name is not one that shall be remembered vividly in cinema history. Yet considering his exploits as a filmmaker, it is mighty tempting to believe it should be otherwise. One need only look to his 1990 action movie Darkman, an endeavour resulting from his failed attempt at bringing a recognizable comic book property to the big screen (a feat he would accomplish some 12 years later). What would a creative mind opt for in the aftermath after such a bump in the road? Why, create his own super hero of course.
Peytan Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant medical researcher working tirelessly in his private loft laboratory to create a sustainable artificial skin out of liquid materials. He and his partner have reached the stage of merely building the synthetic coating, but its life span is but of 99 minutes. The answer to the mystery is both a blessing and a curse. The discovery coincides with the startling arrival of the city's major mob organization, headed by the ruthless Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake). Their interest with Westlake lies not with the man's scientific endeavour but rather a document left behind by his girlfriend, Julia (Frances McDormand). It appears that Julia may have unearthed the truth behind her employer's (Colin Friels) powerful friends in the real estate and construction business, namely, Durant's gang. To cover their tracks, the villains assault Westlake's home, but before leaving the premise with the sought after document, they bring the research lab down in flames, along with poor Westlake himself, horribly scarring his body with burns and bruises. Left for dead, his body is found by a medical team, who make use of him as part of their own experiment in re-wiring the brain insofar that it no longer receives signals of physical pain. Now, heavily bandaged and awarded extra stamina, Westlake prowls the city for vengeance against Durant, all the while making use of his synthetic liquid skin to get back together with Julia.
Seeing Sam Raimi's Darkman for a second viewing in a matter of just a few weeks meant some peculiar thoughts sprung to mind, some of which relate to some of the movies which may have inspired Raimi in bringing the story of Darkman to realization. There is a lot about his film that recalls a Paul Verheoven action and science-fiction movie released only three years prior, Robocop. For one, the protagonist is a decent human being who invests a great deal of energy in a cause he believes to be for the good of society, only for forces beyond his control destroy him physically and mentally, taking him away from his female companion. Ironically, in both cases, it is in part the field of work they attached themselves to which serves to being them back into the thick of things and strike against the aforementioned evil forces. Additionally, among said antagonists is a powerful individual in the high stakes real estate business whose lucrative associations involve a city's criminal underworld leader. In both cases, the real estate entrepreneur is using as a front for his scheming ways a new, sophisticated, state of the art plan involving the redevelopment of a run down sector of the metropolis. Both films revel in their violence, albeit one does so far more than the other (Raimi can direct all the Evil Dead films he so desires, Verheoven still wins in the 'so senselessly violent it's actually fun' department). None of this either hampers or improves Raimi's picture in any significant way, for the purpose of highlighting some interesting tidbits about the movie under review, they felt worthy of mention.
Darkman is a strange little movie, replete with quirks that differentiate it from the legion of other superhero films created since, as well as some more obvious characteristics with also help provide it with a unique sense of identity. It seems pertinent to understand that this movie was made in the few years following the two films which brought Raimi to the attention of the American film industry at large, the two Evil Dead pictures, whereas his Spider-Man trilogy, which the marathon shall evaluate later on, was made in the years after Raimi's attitudinal approach to storytelling had softened in some important ways. Show Darkman and Spider-Man to someone who has seen neither but is familiar with the rest of the director's efforts, and it should be plain as daylight which one was made earlier in his career and which one came later on. There is a mean streak to Darkman which seeps into its story straight from the opening scene when Durant, played with a mixture of quirk and menace by Larry Cark, overtakes the city docks from a rival gang leader and makes the latter suffer for his futile challenge attempt by hacking off his fingers.
Even the titular action star is much less a hero than one is accustomed to witnessing in superhero epics. Typically, the protagonist will engage in acts and sport a behaviour which enables the viewer to believe that the individual in question is in fact a man worthy of empathy and emotional investment. Such is not the case here, as Payton Westlake, horrifically disfigured (which is already a clear giveaway that Raimi wishes to differentiate his creation from the norm), is released from the shackles of the normal behavioural regulations dictated by the mind. As explained in the film, the experiment the charred Westlake is unwillingly a part of has resulted in his brain no longer capable of detecting or receiving certain visceral signals from the body, such as physical pain. The counterbalance to this is heightened emotional responses to stimuli. Anger, frustration, sadness. The mild mannered Westlake from the start of the picture is buried by a near-maniacal freak hellbent on revenge. All this detailing of Sam Raimi's vision may lead a reader to believe the film left a poor impression on the author. That is absolutely not the case. A perfect movie this is not, with some wooden performances in some cases, embarrassingly poor composition shots during involving back projection during larger action set pieces (not even decent by 1990 standards, sadly), but through it all the film's unhinged quality, its willingness to forgo convention in the realm of comic book type stories is refreshing. Rarely has Liam Neeson let loose has he does here. Some may claim Taken to be another example, and why it is tempting to agree, the Irishman still comes off as more calculating in his brutality in the 2008 film. Darkman, the character,is like Phantom of the Opera, with extra emphasis on the operatic angle. It is also intriguing to note that, as silly as the explanation behind Westlake's fever pitched emotional swings may be, it does, in the end, help explain why someone in his condition would actually go about plotting a violent revenge scheme against those who wronged him. This is not a case of a figuratively 'broken' man going mad, nay, this is man literally going mad.
Darkman possesses no fighting skills, nor does the picture ever even hint at the character trying to acquire any. This adds a slight sense of thrill to his more physical encounters with Durant's gang, particularly near the end. Rather than opt to engage his enemies in contests of fighting prowess, Westlake's preferred attack method is by infiltrating the gang under the guise of its fellow members, a feat accomplished by making use of the liquid skin seen at the start of the film. The idea is a lot of fun, and for the most part plays out effectively, although there are some frightfully easy criticisms that may be aimed at some of the details as to how Raimi uses the plot device, such as why Westlake can never seem to accomplish his individual missions before the full 99 minutes of the synthetic skin's life cycle run out ('Oh god! I only have a few minutes left before my face melts away...for the third time').
This by no means is a film that has a lot to say, thematically speaking. Raimi merely set out to make his own variation on the superhero genre, following his own rules and staying true to his inclinations as a filmmaker. At this stage in his career, that essentially amounted to being as intense and hard core as possible. It makes for a different movie, quite a delightful one at that.