When I was given the opportunity to throw in my two cents here at the Clubhouse for the Trailer Terrors feature, I thought it’d only be appropriate to dig deep into my warped childhood to a find a film that has left an undeniable impression on me and forever sealed my fate as a strange kid. It didn’t take very long… the minute I happened upon the title of today’s flick, an irrepressible grin spread across my face that beamed with the warmest familiarity. Like a beacon of light shining from the shadows, that mysterious figure of justice known only as Darkman rose from the ashes for another bloody battle against crime in my DVD player!
Darkman was once a normal man, a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who was devising a formula for synthetic skin, the secret to the material’s consistency always eluding him. Just when he reaches the brink of discovery and finds that the skin holds together in the dark, his lab is taken under siege by a gang of criminals looking for a memo detailing the illegal affairs of corrupt businessman Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels).
Left to die in a fiery inferno, Westlake’s body is restored at a hospital, albeit his identity unknown and all his nerve endings no longer functioning. Escaping into the wastelands of the city, Westlake adopts a new persona and uses his scientific skill to masquerade as criminal overlords in order to enact his vengeance. When his girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) is thrown into the deadly web, Westlake crusades into the night to end Strack’s reign once and for all.
What are you looking at, ugly?
The movie is entirely comic book in both look and tone. Most of the set pieces seem to be drawn rather than existing in three-dimensional reality and Westlake’s fiery outbursts look like something you’d see in an explosive splash page. But it all adds to the red-blooded, fun vibe of the film. There’s never a question about who the bad guys are; they’re slimy and wicked through and through, and do very little to hide that fact. This is perhaps best exemplified in the performance of the jowly Larry Drake as Robert Durant. His scenes are filled with good ol’ fashioned villainy as he sits snipping with his cigar cutter (a tool he enjoys using to crack the fingers of any smart guy who gets in his way).
Darkman crackles with adrenaline and has enough explosions and fight scenes to appease all the sweating action hounds out there. A terrific example of the 90’s action trash that came in the wake of Schwarzenegger and Stallone films, the film clips along at an almost breakneck speed, starting off with a terrific mob warehouse confrontation that includes not only speeding cars crashing through crates, but a cronie whose false leg turns out to be a machine gun! Watching insanity like that is sure to make you feel like a kid again.
Noticin’ you… noticin’ me!
Darkman is also peppered with that iconic humor that we’ve all come to expect in a Sam Raimi film. Of particular note is the tickling moment when Darkman, while holding on for dear life by a dangling rope from a speeding helicopter, crashes through the window of an office meeting where he gives a casual “Excuse me” before being dragged out into the chaos again. And be sure to keep your eyes peeled for that little cameo Bruce Campbell makes at the end of the movie. Genius!
The character of Darkman seems to be an amalgam of pop culture’s most famous dark fictional personalities; he is the Phantom of the Opera, the Shadow, and Batman all rolled into one. His dark look and presence are sure to strike fear in the hearts of many. If you ran into a bandaged, skull-faced entity clad in flowing black coat and fedora in a darkened alley, you’d probably turn and head in the other direction faster than you can shout “Lamont Cranston.” The addition of Darkman’s chameleon-like abilities to blend into society via synthetic flesh masks is a unique concept that lets the film be its own distinct creature from all the other caped-vigilante flicks out there.
In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight.
But Darkman is not all sparks and no substance. Liam Neeson lends a tortured performance as the deformed Westlake and his grief at his fate always seems genuine and not the least bit cheesy. Sure, there are those aforementioned moments where Westlake’s brain does a “Flame On!” and he goes all apeshit over whichever poor sap decides to piss him off. But the intimate scenes where Westlake is alone in his dirty hovel, weeping over his isolation from the world, truly strike a chord in the audience. While mostly everyone else is a two-dimensional cardboard cutout, Neeson rises above them as a truly poignant and sympathetic character.
Darkman is an early action flick in the vein of the superhero blockbuster that many seem to forget nowadays. Overshadowed by Raimi’s other comic book work with the Spider-Man films, Darkman is a glorious treasure that needs to be discovered and adored by more fans. With tubular (yes, I said tubular) action sequences, an intriguing tragic hero, a stirring score by Danny Elfman, and a gallery of nefarious ne’er-do-wells, Darkman packs all the power of a stiff punch to the face. Justice never looked so good.