Directed and Co-Written by Sam Raimi
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is working on an artificial skin to help disfigured victims. Julie Hastings (Francis McDormand) is his girlfriend who uncovers criminal wrongdoing by a villainess land developer Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels). His criminal partner Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake) goes to Westlake’s lab searching for an incriminating memorandum he doesn’t know he has. The lab is blown up by Durant, but Westlake survives disfigured having been tossed into the water by the force of the explosion. In an attempt to rebuild his life and get revenge, Westlake uses his artificial skin to impersonate Durant’s henchmen in an effort to tear apart his criminal empire and bring the guilty to justice.
Everybody’s talking about Marvel movies these days but have they all forgotten how over-the-top awesome and original this movie was? It is one of the best and most unique superhero films ever made. Sam Raimi created a classic here. He combined elements of classic horror film characters and their films with modern superhero aesthetics to create something unlike anything else. Compared to the cookie cutter formula used by many superhero movies today, it is something completely different.
Liam Neeson is great as the disfigured scientist. He gives a great deal of pain and complexity to the character of Westlake/Darkman. At the beginning of the movie when he’s brought to the hospital, they severed the character’s pain receptors in his spinal cord that transmits pain to the brain. This causes his mind to go inward for stimulation since he feels nothing and causes the character to slip towards insanity. Neeson moves the character through stages as the film progresses. He’s a good guy at the beginning and then a madman seeking vengeance and by the end he’s a darker soul dealing with what he has become.
Francis McDormand’s character of Julie is there to get the plot rolling as well as allow Darkman moments of philosophy and emotional complexity. Her character is the rock that helps him maintain his weak grip on his humanity and not to avoid complete madness. But she’s also a source of pain for him as he knows until he can solve the complexity of the problem of the formula, he can’t really be with her.
Larry Drake as Durant is a perfectly evil and over the top villain. As crazy good as Darkman is, Durant is just as crazy evil. He’s rather chilling. Larry Drake pulled no punches in this role. I only had a passing familiarity with him from some brief bits of his work I’d seen from LA Law. I was blown away by him here. I didn’t think he had it in him to be so good as a villain.
The movie is shot in a way that makes you feel like you’re reading an older comic book or watching an old school movie serial. It’s just visually unlike anything you got back then or even get today. The way they portray when he begins to break and lose his sanity on screen is great. You get weird visuals to see what’s going on in his head. Neeson switches from levelheaded to crazy on a dime. One moment he’s Westlake. The next he is Darkman and ready to break a man’s fingers just because he’s irritated. If you didn’t think Liam Neeson was going to be a big star after seeing this, I have to ask what’s wrong with you? To do that effectively shows tremendous ability.
The movie has a great story. Despite its touches of camp and over the top moments it’s got a solid and serious story at its core. There are no huge leaps of logic and they stick solidly with the mythology they establish concerning the skin and Westlake’s condition.
Despite all the over the top action and schemes and grandiose villainy, the plot that Darkman must stop is simple. He must bring to justice in some form a corrupt land developer and topple a crime lord. The crime lord has no desire to control the city or control the world but given the character and given the performances and given the villains he has a face off against, the stakes are raised so high that it feels world threatening. The plot feels bigger than it actually is. That’s a great thing. It goes to the quality of the story and acting and the skills of Sam Raimi.
And how can you not love the master of disguise aspect of it? It’s a great way for the hero to mess with the villains without using any physical force. Darkman uses his mind rather than his fists. It’s not one big battle after another. It’s psychological trickery to make the villains turn on each other and destroy themselves. Superhero films don’t do that anymore.
This movie is a genuine classic of the superhero genre. It deserves to be ranked right up there with the Christopher Nolan Batman films. It’s a genre great.