Movie Review - Darkman
I’m not sure how you arrive at asking “Wouldn’t the Phantom of the Opera make a great superhero?” Yet, Sam Raimi’s career has been built on questions like this…all met with the same answer: “I…guess, Sam. But isn’t that a little messed up?”
Yes. Yes it is, but that’s how he’s gotten to be where he is, so hey, don’t knock it if it works, right?
Now, before we get into the review, some history first. (What…again??? These get to be long winded and you know it! I’ll try to keep this one short, but no promises.) Darkman was released in 1990, just as I was in middle school. Ahhhh, puberty. If you’re a nerd in rural Ohio, this begins the long, long road of pain, but back on topic. Here I am at my most impressionable and I see the movie poster. It made such an impression on me that I still consider it to be one of the best movie posters ever. It’s the reason I started wearing a trench coat…just based on the poster alone. Heck, I never even saw the movie until it came out on home video (going to the theatre was a rare treat in my younger days, being both low income and located 30 minutes away from the nearest one). And, reflecting on it, I feel like I owe an apology to the clerks at the Giant Eagle video department…as I’m certain I was rather a pest about asking when it came out and when it finally did, if they could hold me a copy (which they actually did…though I don’t know if it was just one of the services they provided or if they were just trying to get me to stop bugging them!). There is one last thing that makes this movie stick out for me. You see, I knew Darkman. He was my friend. Sounds weird, I know…good, that means you swallowed the hook. I’ll explain. I had several friends that were fond of the movie as well back then. In fact, one friend liked it so much that he used the closing lines of the movie to sign a…well…the best word I can come up with is “love note”. Through clandestine measures that would impress the CIA and NSA (and yet are typical to teenagers everywhere), the note came into my possession (translation, another friend of mine saw it in his Trapper Keeper…remember those...and stole it). The author of the note, well, his identity was obvious (aside from the “Hey, look what I got from so-and-so’s Trapper”, the writing style was a dead giveaway), and of course I liked the guy, he was my friend! But this was just too damn over the top…it was hilarious. So…well, you just can’t sit on a find like this, you have to share it (sometimes at a quarter per copy). I’m not defending my actions, not at all, but when you write a love note with references to St. George’s Eve and wrap up with:
I am everyone and no one
I am everywhere and nowhere
You’re just asking for it. Or at least that what my young mind thought. To this day, “Darkman” continues to deny his authorship…and hell, does it really matter? Yet, perhaps you can see why the movie would linger in my mind. And, hell, pretty good way to start a movie review, right? Not gonna see a story like that on the more professional sites, now are ya???
Right! So…movie review. Darkman is the story of Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on a synthetic skin in a lab in his home. His lawyer girlfriend, Julie, has been working for/with a real estate/construction firm in order to renovate the downtown area (given Raimi’s roots, it’s not unfair to speculate that the city is likely Detroit) when she comes across a memorandum that reveals that her company has been bribing city council for construction permits or what have you. This leads to, as one of my college roommates would say, “trouble in Mayberry”. She takes it to her boss, kind of a dumb thing to do…he assures her that they need to keep it between themselves because 1) a rival real estate mogul wants the downtown contracts too and he has “underworld” ties and 2) this rival has the police on his payroll (yup, this is Detroit!). All of this translates into “Actually, the ‘rival’ is my underling and I’m the big-bad, so thanks for the tip!” So…goons raid Westlake’s apartment (where Julie spends a lot of time…but why didn’t they go to HER place???), find the good doctor at work and ask him for the memo. Given that he’s a scientist in the middle of an experiment and not a lawyer…and it’s like one sheet of paper amongst scores…he has no idea. And we start up the torture. Eventually goons find what they’re looking for, blow the place up and move on. And yet…Westlake lives. All paint by numbers so far, right? Then let’s continue. Westlake is horribly burned and the shockwave throws his body out into a nearby body of water. He’s assumed dead, but the body is recovered and is admitted to the hospital as a John Doe. The burns are too extensive, so they shut off the part of his brain that registers pain. This leaves him stronger yet very emotionally unstable. Maybe THAT’S why I latched on to this movie during my early puberty!!!
Superhero origin over, it’s time for Westlake to begin to exact his revenge and get back the girl. Remember that synthetic skin from earlier? Yup, Westlake decides to use that to hide his scars as he tries to reconnect with Julie…and uses it to turn the goons that this to him against one another. Okay, we’ve covered powers and motivation, time to mention the limitations or weakness of our hero, right? Well, turns out the skin can only hold together for 99 minutes in daylight before melting off. Too harsh to say he burns easy? BUT…the skin remains stable if it’s in the dark. Ta-da! Movie title! In a world full of superhero movies, I’m sure you can figure out the rest of the story.
So…with the above plot synopsis is very tongue-in-cheek, you’d think that I’ve lost my younger-self’s attachment to this movie. No…not in the slightest for several reasons. Yes, the plot is very simple. On top of that, the acting is also very over the top. These things combine to form a film that feels very operatic…which, again, given that this is “the Phantom of the Opera as a superhero”, well, makes perfect sense. Watching Westlake’s downward moral spiral proves to be both interesting and entertaining…mostly. The movie presents a counterpoint to the old adage “Beauty is only skin deep.” So what happens when you’re ugly? If the goal is to be as beautiful on the inside as you are on the out, what happens when, for whatever the reason, your visage causes children to flee in terror and adults to regurgitate a bit? Westlake opts to steer into the skid, his insides becoming uglier and darker to match his new scarred outside. Again, a very operatic path to take.
How does the cast do with this? Well, this is an early Liam Neeson we’re dealing with as Dr. Peyton Westlake, aka Darkman. It kinda shows that this was toward the start of his Hollywood career. What I mean by that is that for many scenes, he’s great. I mean, hell, even early in his career he’s Liam freakin’ Neeson…but there are a few scenes where he seems a bit awkward. Now that I think about it, those awkward scenes were mostly with Frances McDormand as Julie, so perhaps that was Sam Raimi’s intention all along? Maybe, but I do have to say, McDormand is kinda the weak cog here. Her performance never really makes you see what Westlake sees in her. If you can’t sympathize with the relationship at the core of the movie…well…doesn’t bode well, does it? On the other end of things, the actors playing the villains all do a great job…especially Larry Drake as Robert G. Durant. How great? You can spot fans of this film just by going into a room and loudly announcing that you have seven more points to make. If people start hiding their fingers…they know EXACLTY what you’re talking about. And THAT makes a great villain!
The last thing I’d point out before summing up is that it is a movie from 1990, so we find ourselves in that transition period between practical effects and the CG we’ve come to know from recent cinema. As such, the composite and blue-screen shots do look very dated in this film. That can be due to both the limitations of the age as well as, let’s face it, it’s Sam Raimi more in Evil Dead mode than in Spider-Man trilogy mode. You’ll need to keep that in mind as you watch.
Yes, even so many years removed, I still enjoy the film and would certainly recommend it. Sure the plot is simple, but that has more to do with both the operatic nature of it as well as the current inundation of superhero films (back then, they weren’t so common!). Yes, the effects are limited. Actually, when Rick is killed by Darkman sticking him up out of a manhole so that he can be run over by Optimus Prime (no, it’s not a crossover…he was just run down by a red cab-over style semi)…the dummy that they used was just absolutely hilarious. Given that this is Sam Raimi we’re talking about here, yes, it was likely intentional! Honestly, given how the remake of Evil Dead turned out, and I’m sure I’m committing an internet-nerd cardinal-level sin here, I think this is probably ripe for a remake…especially if Raimi oversees it as he did with Evil Dead.