a critiQal film review Darkman (1990)

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Plot: Dr. Peyton Westlake (Neeson) is on the verge of realizing a major breakthrough in synthetic skin when a gang, led by the sadistic Robert G. Durant (Drake), obliterates his laboratory. Burned beyond recognition and altered by an experimental medical procedure, Westlake attempts to rebuild his laboratory and reestablish ties with his former girlfriend Julie (McDormand). But his most challenging task lies within himself. Torn between his desire to create a new life with Julie and his quest for revenge, the man known as Darkman begins to assume alternate identities.

826 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 7s)

Today, I was in the mood for something in the 80’s or 90’s to watch. While perusing the ol’ NetFlix® Instant Queue, I came across a film that fit the bill: Darkman. This 90’s superhero actioneer stars a pre-Taken (2009) Liam Neeson and a pre-Fargo (1996) Frances McDormand. While I remember liking the comic book style of this dark action pic back in the 90’s, I was interested to see how well Darkman had held up over the years.

Liam Neeson, looking much more fresh-faced than viewers of today expect, looks like he’s a bit of a newbie to action pics in Darkman. While he wasn’t (his IMDb page lists several action flicks prior to this, including Krull and Next of Kin), he still looks like he’s testing the waters with Darkman. As is typical of the 80’s, he’s overacting, and it comes off a bit unnatural for him. His action hero persona of late, showcased in films like Taken (2009) is a much better version of him as action hero.

Frances McDormand, who really stepped into the limelight with Fargo (1996) a few years later, does the same overacting in Darkman as Liam, and it comes off just as fake, if not more so. Her character is vapid, shallow and dumb, and manages to cause more trouble for the hero than anyone else on screen. This combination will leave most viewers wondering why she wasn’t killed off early, giving the hero the same motive for revenge that works so well in the film, without having to endure the silly sequences of the two of them later on.

While Colin Friels is supposedly the main villain of the pic, it’s Larry Drake that causes the most trouble for our hero in Darkman. While Friels is just the stereotypical evil corporate mastermind – and thus easily forgotten – it’s Drake who really shines as our hero’s toughest foe. Sure, he may have first gotten recognition for his mentally-handicapped role in L.A. Law (TV), but he certainly made a name for himself in the 90’s as a villain – thanks to his roles in Darkman and Dr. Giggles. He’s a good foe, despite his doughy appearance, as he’s got quite a bit of man-and-firepower to toss at our hero, along with a sense of crazy rage hiding just below the surface.

Sam Raimi, who was still running high off of his Evil Dead series of films, came up with quite a novel idea with Darkman. Unfortunately, while he got a lot of it right – including the usage of Mission: Impossible (1996) masks and an early showcase of what amounts to a large 3D printer – Darkman isn’t perfect.

While the setup is promising, the movie quickly turns into a showcase of how vapid both the hero and his love interest are. Apparently, looks mean a lot to these two, and the hero constantly questions whether his love will still want him now that he’s disfigured. He even asks her point blank at one point whether she will still want him if he’s scared, to which she replies with a rather uncaring “I don’t know” – and that’s after she’s had to hem and haw about marrying him prior to any disfigurement. The solid love story that needs to be behind this film just isn’t there, and it makes the hero look like a fool to pursue this lukewarm entanglement.

The style of the film is a bit off-kilter these days too. With Marvel managing to perfect the superhero film by humanizing their characters, and Batman Begins (2005) and it’s sequels showcasing how to do “dark” superhero films, Darkman comes off a bit too comic book-y to really endear itself to viewers. Batman (1989) was released just a year prior, and while it’s director managed to revel in the fantastical world it created, it never seemed to take itself too seriously. Darkman, on the other hand, tries to play straight while still delivering that same over-the-top feel.

Still, the premise is interesting, it’s got a decent villain in Larry Drake, and Liam isn’t so bad as the title character. It’s faults more lie with a director who was more used to horror than superheroes, and it shows. While Tim Burton was able to create a superhero movie that enveloped the feel of the comic books without coming off as ridiculous, Darkman excels more at the evil showcased by it’s villain than by the redemption of it’s hero. Point in fact, the finger-cutting sequences will probably still manage to produce a few chills among viewers, and remains among the top memorable moments of the film.

While Raimi would later go on to showcase a better mix of action, horror and comedy with Army of Darkness, and most of this film’s stars would go on to bigger and better things as well, it’s not to say Darkman isn’t enjoyable. It is…but it could have been so much better.

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