Sunday, June 11, 2017

Darkman

Darkman (1990), directed by Sam Raimi, is a fine superhero movie based on a comic book that never existed. Though not based on any established source material like Batman or Superman, the plot hits all the expected beats: a brilliant scientist is disfigured in a lab explosion orchestrated by the villain, and our hero uses his newfound powers to take his revenge, bring down the bad guys, and reunite with his pretty girlfriend.

Here, the tragic scientist is Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), his girlfriend is crusading lawyer Julie (Frances McDormand), and the nasty villain is a wonderfully smug piece of work named Robert Durant (Larry Drake), who clips his cigars with the same cutter he uses on fingers. There's also corporate bigwig Strack (Colin Friels), who's actually the evil mastermind behind everything, but honestly, he's not that interesting.

Anyone familiar superhero stories will know how Darkman unfolds, but we don't watch Sam Raimi movies for the plot. We watch for the fun, zany, and energetic style he brings, and Darkman is certainly a fun, zany, energetic, and stylish movie, almost as if Raimi is warming up for the Spider-Man movies he'd later direct.

Westlake combines brains and brawn in his quest for vengeance. His injuries (and subsequent treatment at the hospital) leave him with severed nerve endings, so he feels no pain, and while this proves useful, it occasionally leads to bouts of boiled over rage when his brain, so starved for sensation, drives him him a little crazy.

As a scientist, Westlake was working on a synthetic skin, and while it creates perfect replicas, the skin only lasts 99 minutes before dissolving. This leads to some of the more inspired moments in the movie as Westlake creates disguises to work his way through Durant's gang to get them to turn on each other. The result is a balancing act between slapstick and excitement, particularly a scene where he impersonates Durant and the real one turns up. How will Durant's henchmen determine who's real and who's the impostor?

While this role probably won't be featured in the montage of his work when he receives his lifetime achievement Oscar, Liam Neeson is quite good. Wrapped in bandages like the Mummy and skulking around the shadows and back alleys like the Phantom of the Opera, he's suitably tortured and borderline deranged, and yet his scenes with Frances McDormand, who is also solid in a standard part, are sweet and tender. Elsewhere, Larry Drake makes a wonderfully slimy villain.

Raimi gives the movie his all. Pretty much any shot could be extracted from extracted from the movie and used as a panel in a comic book. Raimi zips his camera around with infectious energy, and he gives us a lot of off-kilter, wild camera angles. The only downside is some shoddy green screen work.

Danny Elfman does the score. It sounds very similar to the one he did for Tim Burton's Batman, but hey, at least it's one worth cribbing from.

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