Darkman (1990)

darkman

“See the dancing freak! Pay five bucks! To see the dancing freak, only five bucks! To-see-the-dan-cing-freak-just-five-bucks!”

Deneb’s rating: Three out of four pink elephants.

Deneb’s review: It’s really rather amazing how entertaining ‘dark’ can be. Things can happen in a movie that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, but as long as it’s done entertainingly, you just sit back and chomp your popcorn and lap it up. And somehow, you fail to feel guilty for doing so.

We’re sadists, ya know? Just about everyone, no matter how light and fluffy their cinematic tastes are, tends to have a select few favorites that are dark, dark, dark. Two times out of three, these films hinge on people’s pain and suffering, things that, as healthy people, we are not supposed to enjoy – yet we do anyway. It’s kind of sick.

Am I decrying all this ? Heck no – disturbing though it may be to think about, I, too, have fallen prey to the darkness’ siren call. For all that I love happy endings and cute puppies and the like, there are times when I just want to sit back and watch some poor bastard’s life go to hell as he mows down the bad guys – and Darkman, as you may have guessed by now, is a prime example of this.

The film takes place in a nameless city (although it resembles Chicago) being eaten alive by crime. The cops are either useless or for sale, and the crooks are both nasty and everywhere.

But does research scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) care? Heck no – for him, life is good. True, he’s having a spot of bother with his current project, to wit, artificial skin – he’s figured out how to make the stuff, all right, but it won’t last more than 99 minutes in direct light before it melts on him – but hey, he’s got his girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand). They’re madly in love, he’s just asked her to marry him – looks like things are looking up, right?

Well… no. Most decidedly no. See, it seems that Julie’s uncovered some dirt on a particularly nasty gang of crooks, helmed by one Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake – and yes, he’s the sort of character who always gives his whole name). They break into Peyton’s lab looking for it, and in the process blow the place sky-high – along, naturally, with him.

Luck is (sort of) with him, though, as he doesn’t die. Instead, he lands in the river, somewhat on the scorched side, and winds up in the local burn unit as a John Doe.

This quickly leads to the mother of all good-news-bad-news situations. The good news is, the doctors have a way to help him with the pain of his burns – they cut off the nerve receptors to his brain, so now he can’t feel pain (or anything else) and he won’t “spend the rest of his life screaming”, as they put it. Oh, and he’s got super-strength! Yay!

The bad news is that none of this changes the fact that he’s a crispy, crunchy critter with a hideously scarred face and hands and… presumably just about everything else. Oh, and that super-strength? It’s a side effect of the fact that his brain is now a seething chemical stew, leaving him an emotional wreck and open to uncontrollable fits of rage.

Panicked and disoriented upon waking, Peyton breaks out of the hospital and hits the streets. Now a hideous mummy-man clothed in what he could dredge out of the dumpster, he’s out to get revenge on the crooks who did this to him – and, hope springing eternal, to try and piece together his old life with Julie.

In both cases, he’s got an ace in the hole – his artificial skin. Seems that he can use it to cover over his gruesome visage and make himself into the spitting image of whoever he wants to be – including Durant and his gang. With the aid of an old photo, he can even remake his original face. Sure, his skin starts to bubble after 99 minutes, but hey, better than nothing, right?

Well – a bit better, anyway. How does it all turn out? Watch the movie and find out.

See why I was going on about darkness up above? Going purely by the storyline, this thing is seriously dark. It’s basically about the systematic ruination of a man’s life and his descent into violence and madness – not too twinkly. In the wrong hands, this could have been horribly depressing.

Fortunately, it’s in the hands of Sam Raimi, a man who never takes his darkness too seriously. While the story is pretty consistently tragic, it’s skillfully manipulated – when he wants us to feel pity for poor ol’ Peyton, he plays things straight; when he wants to lighten the mood a little, he simply intensifies things to the point where they veer into camp. When even that isn’t enough, he throws in an action scene. I suppose you could call it a tragicomedy with explosions.

All of this, however, rides upon the shoulders of the actors – first of which, obviously, is Darkman himself. This was Neeson’s breakout role, and he nails it – he plays Peyton as someone who has the ultimate excuse to feel sorry for himself, but at the same time, never stops trying to do something about it. He may have been crispy-fried, but he’s still got his brain – if it was down to him and his intellect, he might actually find a way out. The trouble is, it’s not – his problem requires cool, calm logic, something that he is now basically incapable of for any length of time. However much he may struggle against it, his situation may well be a one-way street, and he’s got to figure out what happens when he gets to the end.

Some people have commented that Darkman really shouldn’t count as a superhero, despite the fact that he’s generally labeled as one – after all, he’s only out for revenge, and is basically a self-admitted monster. I can see the logic in that, but I can’t say I really agree with it. I mean, of course he’s out for revenge – like I said above, he’s got the ultimate excuse. This is his origin story, and his origin is the pits, and involves slimy characters that you just want to punch. Who can blame him for fighting them specifically, instead of crime in general? These are villains that deserve everything they get – there’s nothing saying that his quest won’t turn into a more general punish-the-guilty thing in the future, it’s just beyond the scope of this particular movie.

As for the others, Larry Drake does quite a good job as Durant. He’s quite believably loathsome and intimidating, to the point where the usual “why does anyone work for this guy?” question is circumvented – they work for him ‘cause they’re friggin’ scared of him. Frances McDormand plays a nicely unconventional leading lady – she’s basically the damsel in distress here, but she’s not just that; she’s a strong and charismatic character in her own right (even if she doesn’t get many good lines), and you can see why Peyton loves her. (In fact, if I may get on my soapbox here for a moment, Raimi deserves credit for casting her and Neeson as his romantic couple. While neither of them are exactly old or ugly here, they’re not the variety of impossibly gorgeous that often tend to dominate Hollywood. They’re good-looking, regular people, not supermodels, and this helps us identify with them. It’s a tactic you don’t often see in big-budget movies these days, and I applaud Raimi for using it.)

So that’s Darkman. It has its weaknesses as a movie – the systematic hunting down of the bad guys gets a little tiresome at times, and there are some lousy bluescreen shots near the end – and not everybody likes it. I do. Maybe you will, too.

Here’s a good way to tell if you will. There is a scene where Darkman, freshly Darkman-ized, is making his way through the alleyways during a howling thunderstorm. Across the street, he spots Julie, hurrying towards her apartment. Draped in a sodden greatcoat, he staggers and lurches his way across the street, lightning flashing in the background, a bandage-wrapped monstrosity drawn helplessly and hopelessly to his beloved.

If just the description of this scene makes you roll your eyes, then yeah, you’re probably better off avoiding this movie. If, on the other hand, you feel some sympathy towards this poor mummy-man, and root for him to succeed, then c’mon over here and sit down. I’ve got the popcorn ready. Let’s watch.

Justin’s rating: Don’t you get it yet, peoples? I don’t do ratings!

Justin’s review: Sam Raimi, the mastermind behind the great Evil Dead trilogy, brings us his own version of the superhero mythos with Darkman. A Really Bad Guy is practically running the city through strongarm tactics (involving, but not excluding, collecting fingers from his competitors). A Brilliant Scientist (Liam Neeson) is somehow caught in the middle of all this because his girlfriend (Frances McDormand) catches on to a zoning scandal.

As we all know, superheros need that initial motivation to become a superhero. For Neeson, it’s getting his assistant shot, his hands fried, and his body set on fire and blown out of a window.

If you haven’t guessed already, Raimi did not aim for a cartoonish Batman & Robin-style superhero tale. This movie is extremely dark (hence part of the name), violent, and even the good guys aren’t all that good. Back to our torched hero, Darkman recovers with a disfigured face and severed nerve endings. His sensory depravation lends him super strength (somehow), and his scientific genus utilizes “liquid skin” to allow him to take on the face of anyone he photographs. Also, he’s got a trenchcoat. So now he’s got a toolset to take down any criminal organization.

When it comes to image and style, Raimi reigns as king. As Darkman descends further and further into madness and vengeance, Raimi sets up a series of montages that allow us to dip into his disturbing mind. The special effects, the camera shots — they all are dark and poignant, and are wonderfully involving.

Of course, there are a few weak points that mar this movie. Character interaction and development lack, particularly when it comes to the love interest (who does little more than get our hero into trouble again and again, like my first date). The bad guys are amusing, but little more than flimsy stereotypes. Also, I got the nagging feeling that the violence was there at times just to be gratuitous.

However, I did find the action sequences exciting, including a unique helicopter chase through the city. I mean, who wouldn’t love to hang off a rope attached to a copter and slam into buildings and bad guys?

Where Darkman finds its unique niche in the superhero lore is that Darkman himself is far from perfect in ideals and actions. He works out of selfishness and a spirit of revenge, which, while not admirable, makes for an interesting watch. At least this movie doesn’t delude itself into being something grander or more honorable than it really is.

Kyle’s rating: A couple of holograms of bobbing birds

Kyle’s review: Liam Neeson is a happy scientist, working on cool projects to make synthetic skin for burn victims and going home to a pleasant girlfriend. Sure, scientists aren’t usually aggressive, but once gangsters destroy Neeson’s lab and break and burn him up, he’s ready to strike back hard.

Now completely covered in bandages to hide his hideously burned body, he uses two big advantages to get revenge on the bad guys: with his imperfect synthetic skin formula, he can impersonate anyone for 99 minutes; and thanks to being blown up and burned his nerve endings have been severed, so he can feel no pain.

Despite waging a dirty war and eventually sinking to the level of the bad guys just to gain revenge, Darkman still manages to stay compelling and sympathetic. The burn pattern on his head is fascinating, with three-quarters of it complete raw meat but the top left quarter is smooth and mostly untouched, hinting at the small amount of humanity he has left. Throw a lot of darkly humorous situations, cartoonish yet deadly serious violence and a great cameo by Bruce Campbell, and you have a great movie.

And that great movie is Darkman.

“Yep, just out for a nice morning jog… on a rooftop… with a helicopter following me… Hmm Hm-Hmm… Hey, it’s HARD to keep in shape when you’re a deformed homeless guy out for revenge, all right?”

Intermission!

  •  There were two direct-to-video sequels to this movie, Darkman 2 – The Return of Durant and Darkman 3 – Die Darkman, Die, as well as a never-released pilot episode for a proposed TV series. For some reason, all three of them gave Darkman a British accent, despite the fact that the character is obviously American (and also despite the fact that he was originally played by an Irish actor who had no trouble disguising his accent. When you cast Brits who don’t bother not sounding British despite the fact that such a thing is specifically required, then, yeah. You’re not dealing with quality).
  •  During the whole alley-in-the-rain sequence, there is an obvious homage to the shower scene in Psycho.
  •  This film came about as a result of Raimi’s fondness for the character of The Shadow – he wanted to direct a Shadow movie. When he couldn’t get the rights, he decided to create his own character instead, and came up with Darkman.
  •  Raimi’s brother Ted Raimi plays the character of Rick.
  •  Some people have complained that Danny Elfman’s score for this movie is exactly the same as his one for Batman. I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. True, there are certain similarities during the action sequences, but there is a distinct ‘Darkman theme’ that is very distinctive, and runs throughout the movie. (Perhaps some people are just watching the action scenes? I don’t know.)
  •  Kurt Busiek wrote a six-issue Darkman miniseries for Marvel Comics back in ’93. I highly recommend it for fans of the movie. – there are some somewhat over-the-top elements added, but overall, it flows logically from the source material very well, and shows how Darkman would actually work as a somewhat more ‘normal’ superhero. It’s not collected in trades, alas, but the individual issues are all available online, as far as I know.

Groovy Quotes:

Rick: I’ve told you everything!
Darkman: I know, Rick. I know you did. But let’s pretend you didn’t!

Eddie Black: Nobody muscles Eddie Black – especially a bunch o’ dinks!

Peyton Westlake: What is it about the dark? What secrets does it hold?

Robert G. Durant: He’s a cockroach! You think you kill him, then he pops up someplace else!

Darkman: (dangling over a freeway) WATCH IIIIIIT!

Robert G. Durant: No foolish heroics, if you please.

Darkman: Burn in hell! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Guzman: Bingo!
Robert G. Durant: Goody!

Darkman: I’m learning to live with a lot of things.

Carnival Barker: That man is a freak! He’s a freak, ladies and gentlemen! He’s a freak! A freak!

Darkman: Ohh – you’ve gotta be s***tin’ me!

Eddie Black: We got a surprise for these… gentlemen.

Darkman: You! Have! Been! A! Bad! Boy!

Julie: If you’re not going to kill me, I have things to do.

Burn Doctor: Personally, I’d give him a nine on the Buzzard Scale.

Darkman: Ju…lliee! It’s… me! Iiiit’s… meee!

Eddie Black: Bum leg?
Skip: No leg.
Eddie Black: I was engaged to a girl once with a wooden leg.
Skip: Yeah? What happened?
Eddie Black: Had to break it off.

Darkman: (dancing) See the dancing freak! Pay five bucks! To see the dancing freak, only five bucks! To-see-the-dan-cing-freak-just-five-bucks!

Julie: Peyton!
Darkman: JU-LIEEEEE!

Darkman: Kiss your ass goodbye!

Peyton Westlake: Take the f***ing elephant!

Darkman: My hands… They took… they took my hands… (starts sobbing)
They… they took… they took my hands!

Eddie Black: (speaking on the phone) ‘Cause he’s an a******! Tell him no!… Tell him no, too!… Him? Tell ‘F*** you’.

Robert G. Durant: (on a tape recorder) That would be… just fine. That would be… just fine. That would be… just fine. That would be…
Darkman: ‘…Just fine’!

Darkman: Excuse me!

Strack: (repeated line) I’m joking, of course!

Darkman: I’m everyone, and no one. Everywhere – nowhere. Call me Darkman.

If you liked this movie, try these:

 

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