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Darkman Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2007

Image "Darkman" is a flamboyant, richly romantic and very colorful story, laced with humor and horror, but the baroque style turned some off. When it was released, there were those who stubbornly insisted that the kind of wit displayed in the film can only be accidental. There were those who felt themselves above the film—possibly because of its comic book-like story—and so laughed at what they thought of as the film's stupidities. But you tell me: at one point, a character who expects to be murdered realizes that that isn't going to happen right now. "If you're not going to kill me," she snaps, "I have some things to do." The audience howled—but that's obviously a deliberately funny line.

It was conceived and directed by Sam Raimi, who at the time had made only three commercial features: "Evil Dead," "Evil Dead 2" and "Crimewave" (which he pretty much disowns). Raimi was unlike any other American director at the time “Darkman” was released. At the time, he was still using the baroque style he’d developed in his amateur movies back in Detroit, and especially in “Evil Dead 2.” The style was astounding, complex and dynamic, involving not just moving cameras, but rocketing cameras, twirling cameras, plunging cameras (and actors), longshots that zippitybang turned into closeups. It was a broad moviemaking style that owes nothing at all to television or the stage--it's entirely M*O*V*I*E, and for those who share Raimi's delirious joy in the possibilities of moviemaking, "Darkman" will be a delight, even now. However, as his career advanced, Raimi reined in that style, became more Hollywood-conventional, but still employed original ideas and approaches in movies like “The Gift” and the three “Spider-Man” movies. But the style is full-blown in “Darkman,” making it an ideal film to watch in high definition. There are shots of cells dividing, of the fiery interior of our hero’s brain (with synapses firing all over the place), explosions, cramped and crowded interiors plus a lavish, all-wood penthouse office. The movie was made before digital effects kicked in, but Raimi fearlessly employed every technique available. It’s a razzle-dazzle movie, colorful, rich in detail, perfect for high definition DVD. Even the sound is rich and ripe. A few scenes are grainy, but they look the same here as on the big screen. The multitude of montages, the eccentric, richly-detailed images they contain, the many zoom-ins and –outs on wildly staring eyes, the scenes in Chinatown—they’re virtually made for HD DVD. Too bad there isn’t a single extra on this disc—not even a trailer, not even the EPK made at the time, not even a commentary track. Universal is essentially just tossing this out the door.

Raimi conceived the project, and successive drafts were written by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam & his brother Ivan, and Daniel & Joshua Goldin. The story has resemblances to “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Phantom of the Opera” and Boris Karloff’s “The Walking Dead.”

Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is trying to find a stable artificial skin, to help disfigured people regain their lost faces, but so far the skin only lasts 99 minutes. Meanwhile, his long-time lover, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), has just gone to work for breezy, confident multimillionaire builder Louis Strack, Jr. (Colin Friels). Peyton wants to get married, but Julie wants to wait. Elsewhere, finger-collecting gangster Durant (Larry Drake) is putting the muscle on rival mobs, with the help of a flakey gang.

One night, Durant and his gang turn up at Peyton's lab, looking for incriminating papers, but since they are Julie's papers, Westlake knows nothing at all about them. Durant has Westlake tortured a while, then sets up an explosive device triggered by a dippy bird (ominously photographed), and leaves Westlake to be blown to smithereens. But he survives, his body shot out of a ball of flame past the camera. His face badly burned and without identification, he's taken to a hospital burn ward, where his nerves are severed (otherwise he'd be in constant agony), from which he escapes as soon as he recovers enough to do so.

Now dressed in a long ragged cloak and floppy hat, and swathed in dirty bandages like The Mummy (you might wonder why he doesn’t replace them with clean wrappings), Westlake sets up a new lab in an abandoned factory and tries to restore his own ruined face. And to get revenge on Durant and his gang--by using the synthetic flesh to impersonate each of the gang members in turn. He essentially turns into a superhero whose power is the ability to change faces—but only for 99 minutes. After that, the new face smokily falls apart. Raimi entertainingly employs this gimmick in many ways, but Westlake always keeps checking “his” new face to let us know it’s him. Darkman—as he dubs himself—is also extra strong and seems to have a vast inventory of gymnastic moves to draw on.

"Darkman" is, to say the least, swiftly paced—Raimi plunges us headlong from one event to another, with his wild photography (Bill Pope was cinematographer) and feverish intensity magnifying Westlake's torment and keeping us from noticing too many holes in the plot. Danny Elfman's sonorous score is perhaps rather like his for "Batman," but it still fills the bill dramatically.
The film hits its climax early, and Raimi manages to sustain it. For any normal movie, the fantastic sequence in which an uncharacteristically wisecracking but determined Darkman dangles below a helicopter trying to smash him into skyscrapers and roaring traffic would be the finale, but whatever it is, "Darkman" is not a normal movie.

This was one of the first movies to actually star Liam Neeson, who’s career zoomed off in a very different direction, though he did return to the fantastic with those “Star Wars” prequels. He creates a solid character in Peyton/Darkman, and we never forget who it is behind all those bandages. He even keeps our sympathy in Raimi's most daring (in dramatic terms) sequence: Peyton has created an artificial-flesh mask for his own face, and he reunites with a stunned Julie (who thought him dead) to go to a carnival. Where Peyton's growing rage breaks loose, climaxing with a camera move into one of his eyes and out of the other. In this bizarre sequence, there’s a bizarre, funny bit with a teddy bear.

Frances McDormand is also outstanding, though she has less to work with, and the role requires her to be more reactive than active. After this, she almost immediately turned into one of the great character actors in movies today, eventually winning an Oscar. Colin Friels, as the ambitious Strack, is elegant, cruel and sensual--and does a perfect American accent. He’s so good it’s surprising he didn’t turn up in other American movies; instead, he returned to the British Isles and became a TV star. (Raimi fans may wonder where Bruce Campbell went. Don’t worry, he’s here—eventually.)

The film feels compromised, as if Raimi initially had a more splendid design in mind. The studio interfered, and Raimi and his writers allowed some of the vision to get away from them—or helplessly watched them recede.

"Darkman" is not a great movie, but it's a dynamic, exciting one, immensely entertaining, involving and even sentimental. It’s one of the two best comic book movies ever made that wasn’t actually based on a comic book (“RoboCop” is the other). It was Raimi’s first big, bold step into commercial filmmaking—the “Evil Dead” movies were essentially expansions of what he was doing in amateur filmmaking. It was a moderate success, enough so that it generated two straight-to-video sequels, “Darkman: the Return of Durant” (1994) and “Die, Darkman, Die!” (1996, though they were made back to back). Arnold Vosloo played Darkan in both of them.

If you’re set up for HD-DVD and enjoy movies with a flamboyant visual style, “Darkman” is an ideal choice. Too bad that Universal insisted on shortchanging the HD DVD buyer by excluding all extras. This is a regrettable habit of the HD arm of their video department.

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