Universal // 1990 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // June 30th, 2000
I am everyone and no one. Everywhere, no where. Call me, Darkman.
Burned beyond recognition and driven nearly insane, scientist Peyton Westlake is a man barely alive. Scraping together the remains of what was once his laboratory, he manages to reinvent his process of creating synthetic skin in order to recapture his love and rain down revenge on the man who destroyed his life, Robert G. Durant. Thus out of the shattered remains of his previous life, Westlake is reborn, an anti-hero for the ages. Beware evildoers for justice has a new and different face. Beware, the Darkman.
1990's Darkman should serve as an opening salvo of sorts for comic book fans everywhere. Sam Raimi, the director and or co-writer of such films as Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Army Of Darkness, A Simple Plan and For The Love Of The Game, will be the man behind the camera when everyone's favorite web-spinner, Spider-Man, takes to the screen sometime in 2001. Personally I think it is an inspired choice and this movie proves to be a great credential for anyone interested.
The plot itself is pure comic book. Brilliant and caring scientist has his life ripped away from him. Thought dead, his soon-to-be wife has moved into the arms of another man. A man who is ambitious and perhaps, dangerous. The hero only possesses his intellect and greatly increased strength to seek revenge against the men who would destroy him. Using his brain he is able to create synthetic skin but with a catch, the skin can only survive for 99 minutes in direct sunlight. Utilizing his discovery, the hero impersonates some of the bad guys, breeding distrust and thinning out their numbers. Eventually his secret is exposed to both villain and lover, causing the inevitable showdown. Also, as with any good comic book tale, lots of things blow up. And in Darkman, they blow up real good!
Of all the directors working today, Raimi's style most reminds me of the master, Alfred Hitchcock. His way of working is purely visual, seemingly not needing spoken words. His camera is vibrant and alive, taking in everything that needs to be seen. He has a way of leading the audience in one direction and then whipping the camera around to give us something completely unexpected. He is also one of the few directors working who is capable of making us laugh at the same time as being creeped out, or in the case of the "Dead" trilogy, grossed out.
Raimi is helped in no small degree in this endeavor by Cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Zero Effect) and Composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure). While Elfman's score is sometimes reminiscent of his Batman work, it certainly serves its purpose here. It is equal parts heroic and gothic. It helps the film with its sense of place and certainly helps jazz the proceedings along. Behind the camera and lighting the way, Pope is the perfect choice for Raimi's vision. He seems to understand the director and it appears they have an almost visual shorthand. Pope's compositions are exciting and haunting. He has a way of maintaining the focus on the characters while always giving us pretty and not so pretty, pictures.
For the lead, Raimi had the good fortune to cast Liam Neeson (The Haunting, Rob Roy, Schindler's List), as Dr. Peyton Westlake. As an actor Neeson brings a considerable talent and presence to the screen. In his hands the movie really becomes more than just an action version of "The Phantom Of The Opera." Neeson is able to convey great compassion as well as great pain and madness. Like the great silent actors of yesteryear, Neeson does not need words to convey emotion. His body expresses everything we need to know. In the footsteps of the great Lon Chaney, Neeson uses extensive make-up to his advantage, making his eyes the method of delivery. I have always felt and continue to think that Darkman is one of Neeson's best moments on the silver screen. To use this movie as another test run and if you believe online rumors, Neeson is supposed to be one of Raimi's choices to play Spidey's foe, the mad scientist Dr. Otto Octavius AKA Doc Ock. I sure hope that rumor proves true.
There is a saying that every hero is only as good as the bad guy he is fighting against. For Darkman that villain is the coolly psychotic Robert G. Durant played by Larry Drake (Dr. Giggles, Prey, television's "L.A. Law"). As Durant, Drake oozes evil from every pore. Smart and sophisticated, Durant is like most of us. He only wants to extort, maim, destroy and add to his ever growing collection of severed fingers. A real killer of a guy, Durant does not like loose ends or crusading men of mystery. Willing to go to any lengths to rid himself of Westlake, Durant wages bloody war across the city sky. It is a war that Westlake AKA Darkman is more than happy to give him. Again with the comic book aspect, the battle between the two of the them is operatic in nature and joyfully over-the-top.
Darkman is a fairly early release from Universal. It falls after the period they were doing widescreen but not going anamorphic and before the reliable appearance of special or extra material. The movie is properly framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the anamorphic transfer is pretty good. Colors and flesh tones have a natural appearance while the films many shadows show a great deal of depth. Detail is not lacking either, with the image rarely showing any signs of shimmer or edge enhancement. The only problem the presentation has is with some regular signs of film grain. To Universal's defense though, Darkman was not exactly big budget and I'm pretty sure most of the problems can be laid at that door step. Still it does exist and I'm here to warn you about it.
Sound is a 2.0 Dolby Surround mix and it is pretty active. Dialogue is always clear and clean sounding. Distortion is held to a minimum and the movie's numerous sound effects come roaring through. The soundtrack also does justice by Composer Elfman's great score. Included on the disc is a French language track in Dolby Surround as well as subtitling in both English and Spanish. All in all, a pretty good package on the sound.
For specials, Darkman has the original theatrical trailer and some decent production notes.
First off let me say that Frances McDormand (Lone Star, Fargo, Blood Simple), is one of my favorite actresses. She is a performer of great depth and intelligence. She is also completely wrong for this movie. I respect Raimi's decision was not to go with a "blond-of-the-month" kind of casting. Nevertheless, either McDormand's role was sorely under written or she was totally clueless on which way to approach her part. Playing the weak female who is merely around to scream and look concerned is not the kind of character I want to see McDormand play. Perhaps, since this was before her Oscar, Darkman was simply a job. Whatever the case may be, her scenes are the movie's weak link. She simply gives no reason as to why one man would overcome death for her or another would consider risking an empire to have her in his life. As for the disc itself, well bearing in mind all the nice things I said above, this is one movie begging for a 5.1 remix. For as good as things sounded in the 2 channel Dolby, I really missed the feeling over being surrounded by action and music.
While I'm never really looking to spend more money and buy something twice, I would gladly pay for a special edition of Darkman. If any of you have listened to Sam Raimi's commentary track on Army Of Darkness, you know this guy loves what he does and enjoys talking about it. At a running time of 96 minutes, I'm willing to bet there were quite a few deleted scenes and I would love to see them. So come on Universal. Conan The Barbarian got a special edition re-release for god's sake, let's do one for Darkman.
It may not go down as one of the greatest films ever made but Darkman is one hell of a movie ride. Cool special effects, spectacular action sequences and two great performances add up to a red blooded, summertime popcorn flick. I'm glad I bought this movie and as it stands its a pretty good disc, its just not as good as it could be. If Universal does not want to take the ball and run with it, well maybe our friends at Anchor Bay could do the honors and license out Darkman. I know I would be first in line to purchase a Special Edition.
If you are either a comic book reader and you can't wait for X-Men, an action lover or a fan of the director, get out of your gothic but functional base of operations and pick up this disc. The movie is so much fun you won't even mind buying it twice.
One last note. For all you true Raimi fans, yes Bruce Campbell does indeed make an appearance and it's a good one.
Darkman is acquitted of all charges and Director Raimi is ordered to go out and do justice by a certain wall crawling hero. Universal is released from the court with a recommendation to return to this cult classic and do it right.
That's it. Case dismissed. 'Nuff said.
Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Bios