‘Darkman’ Revisited

         
 

07 May 2012| 1 Comment     by Sean Chavel

 

While the highly exposed “Avengers” are tearing it up currently at the multiplex, are you in the mood for more unconventional superheroes this season? Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) is the rarest comic book style movie in that it was not based on any previous publication – it was an adventure created directly for the screen. Liam Neeson, in his first lead role and strangely one the best performances he has ever given, plays the tragic Dr. Peyton Westlake. He’s a cosmetic dermatologist, i.e. scientist, who develops a new type of synthetic skin to help acid burn victims. Doc’s creation isn’t full-proof – the skin disintegrates after 99 minutes after application. Yes, there’s action: The Doc is beaten to @#!*% , loses the woman he loves, and goes into concentrated revenge mode to go after the gangsters that destroyed his life.

“Darkman” is one of the few movies ever made that’s a full-blown operatic Action Symphony. The restless music is by the indomitable Danny Elfman (“Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands”) – he creates implacable notes that are a soulful caliber to “Phantom of the Opera,” and has alternate themes that are rhapsodically vengeful. We’re behind the disfigured Doc because the theme is so forcefully obsessed, propulsive in its frenzy, so needy in the quest to set things right. The score is an emotional drumbeat throughout every scene.

Of course, Neeson is so ripped apart emotionally – with such conviction – that it’s easy to feel sympathetic. When he uses an expressive high-pitch to connote his feelings, you are moved by the cracks in his voice (He’s a big man attempting not to cry). There’s a reason though why Neeson has carved out a career of playing men that can withstand pain (“Rob Roy,” “Taken,” “The Grey”). It all started with how he demonstrated resilience and indefatigability as Dr. Peyton in “Darkman.”

The woman of his life is attorney Julie who is played by Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), not one of the film’s strengths. She’s not much of a feminine damsel, and never has been in any movie. Her character Julie here, a hardened and independent woman, turns down the Peyton’s proposal of marriage only to yearn for it after he vanishes from his accident. Andie MacDowell (“sex, lies and videotape”), for instance, would have been a good choice. She’s one of the better actresses to project beauty within the traits of lament and remorse.

The bad guy is mobster Robert Durant (Larry Drake, a great misogynist pig), who is responsible for much destruction and ruined lives. Part of the reason why Peyton’s revenge is so inflamed is because he hates and despises Durant’s misogyny. Peyton hates this misogynist that hates women so much. A villain this heartless that cannot understand the kind of love he has for his own Julie deserves a merciless death. If McDormand isn’t much of a damsel, then at least Neeson’s beseech to endless love rings true.

Once disfigured, Peyton is less than human. The incident that he survived has made him impervious to pain (means he can’t feel any whacks). Neeson is a tall, hulking presence as it is – stalwart and able to throw a punch. To scale his comeback, Peyton uses his science to create masks, to change his face and mimic others, thus he is Darkman. With this, Darkman goes out on the streets and fight diligently, and cunningly, for 99 minutes at a time. He can use his masks to even look like Robert Durant, which means, impersonate him and fire up a rival mob war. Opposing mobs will destroy each other.

It dismays me to report that the early scenes, particularly when the bad guys whop and smash up our hero, are a little too obnoxiously violent. Semi-gruesome, loud and a little coarse. This keeps it from being appropriate viewing for pre-teens. That, and the fact that without bandages he’s as hideous in appearance as Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Somehow though, the work on this film, I’m quite sure of, is what got director Raimi his gig to make “Spiderman” (2002) and its sequels a decade later.

At its best, “Darkman” is complex enough to compare with Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” series, the 2005 “Batman Begins,” I’m thinking, but on a smaller scale. Like Batman, this Darkman acts out of a combination of shame and fury. He hungers for vengeance and at the same time feels like nothing he accomplishes will ever be good enough to have things go back to the way things were. Batman, i.e. Bruce Wayne, never forgave himself for losing his parents, for instance.

Great sequences, fueled by that angry Elfman music, push the envelope in “Darkman.” Fights atop a skyscraper in construction, or a nifty one where our hero hangs by cable from a moving helicopter, are more than just action set-pieces. They contain an inflamed lyrical passion. What makes Darkman different from the Avengers, is that he’s mortal, unlike them. And he’s willing to die to set things right, even though things never will be. It never really was, but “Darkman” truly is one of the darkest comic book adventures ever.

Film Cousins: “Robocop” (1987); “The Crow” (1994); “Batman Begins” (2005); “V for Vendetta” (2006).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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  1.  
    mrwonderful

    mrwonderful says,

     

    Whenever I think about super hero movies, Dark Man always falls off my radar. But, this movie is actually quite special to me in the sense it was the first rated R movie my mom let me watch by myself. I remember watching it upstairs in their bedroom on our old 1980s 9 inch Panasonic TV. It was the first time I saw a movie with a tracking camera angle that would focus on the characters then pan to the background in a continuous motion-to me the camera was orchestrating the story. The haunting score by Mr. Elfman complimented the movie’s atmosphere and drew me in. Keep in mind this was in the day of low resolution tape and mono sound coming from a 2 watt TV speaker. Overall, a super hero that needs more attention.

     

    on May 12, 2012

     

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