Shout! Factory // 1990 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // February 7th, 2014
Now crime has a new enemy and justice has a new face.
Darkman was the first big break Sam Raimi had after the cult success of his previous movie, Evil Dead II, and boy did he take advantage of the opportunity. With a far larger budget and a cast and crew of all professionals, he created a great comic book universe out of wholecloth and, in the process, not only did he develop the template that he would later use for his Spider-man trilogy, but his work would influence the whole range of comic book movies that are so popular today, including and especially Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies. Now, Darkman gets the home video treatment it deserves, with a top notch Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.
Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, Taken) is a brilliant scientist working on synthetic skin that could change humanity, but he gets caught in the crossfire when Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand, Fargo), his District Attorney fiance runs afoul of some gangsters. They blow up his laboratory and, presumably, him along with it. But his medical miracle comes through in a pinch and he is brought back to life, albeit with a disfigured body, super strength, and a disturbed mind bent on revenge. While working his way toward Boss Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake, Bean), he continues his experiments and tries to reconnect with Julie, despite his horrific appearance.
Darkman is one of the few movies that I can say really does have it all. Every dollar Sam Raimi was given to make Darkman after Evil Dead II is all up on the screen; I can't imagine a penny was wasted. This is serious action on every level, with the hard-R violence and nastiness of that era's action film combined with the comic horror that Raimi was already known for, and the result is more fun than I ever expected to have seen in my first viewing of it since I was a kid.
It gets going early and rarely stops to take a breath. Everything gets established in the first two scenes, in which we see Peyton Westlake first making his crazy new skin, making it clear that he's on the side of light. Then we find Durant in the very first action scene, guns blazing and cars racing around, commit an act of horrific violence, making it clear where he's coming from. This is followed closely thereafter by the explosion and, once the obvious fact that Westlake survived becomes clear, this is game on. It's Darkman moving through the ranks hunting Durant while trying to reestablish the life he lost in the explosion.
On a dramatic level, it's nothing new or special; you can slide that setup over to any number of action and comic book scenarios. But between the performances and Raimi's careful, stylish direction, it becomes something unique and heartfelt that remains comically appealing and action-packed. We get massive explosions, hand-to-hand battles, fake leg machine guns, and a helicopter action set piece that's as dangerous looking as anything of its era. The visual effects may not hold up as well as some other movies of the time, but Raimi was working under a considerably smaller budget than others, and that should be forgiven.
The casting may seem a little weird, but each of the leads is perfect. Liam Neeson, not yet the grizzled jedi/wolf-beater he would become, comes off far more as the scientist than the superhero, but when he's put in the makeup, he transforms into a believable badass but, at the same time, Neeson maintains his humanity, maybe even more so than Peter Weller in Robocop, another excellent example of acting under a hood. Frances McDormand seems even less likely as the comic book damsel-in-distress, and even she thought so, but her performance comes across as far stronger and more appealing than most women in this kind of a movie. She's capable first and needy second but, even when she's in danger, she has the wherewithal to help and not just wait for her savior. And then you have Larry Drake, who is anything but the disabled Benny Stulwicz from his stint on L.A. Law; Durant is pure capable evil, cold, calculating, and plain ol' mean. They're a top-notch threesome that, while unlikely at every turn, works exceptionally well together.
It's Raimi's vision, though, that makes Darkman a genuine classic, one that maybe wasn't so apparent in 1990. See, this was a year after Tim Burton's candy-colored Batman, a genuine hit at the time, and Darkman delivers almost the exact opposite comic book experience. I think it's pretty clear that Raimi, an avowed fan of comics, had been reading Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and, in seeing Burton's admittedly unique work, realized he could make something closer to Miller's colder, meaner Gotham and came up with his own character. The result, two decades later, is clear. Darkman is a cult classic and deserves more, while Batman is a relic, and probably doesn't even deserve that distinction. The film's influence of is pronounced, too. Not only is this the template for his Spider-man trilogy, with scenes lifted directly, but the way Neeson works in the makeup and the way the city seethes with grime and darkness is clearly where Christopher Nolan was looking for version of The Dark Knight. Interesting, then, that for all of that entertainment and influence, the movie has never really had a proper retail release.
Until now, that is. What a great all-around release Shout! Factory has delivered as the Darkman (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition. First, the 1.85:1/1080p image transfer isn't quite perfect, but it's as good as it's looked since the theater. The black levels in this very dark film are nice and deep, while retaining detail throughout the frame. Flesh tones look good and there's no excess dirt on the print at any point. The only real issue comes in during the smoky opening sequence, in which the edges look a little bit blocky. It starts off with a slight negative, but gets a whole lot better after that. The 5.1 Master Audio mix, though, is next to perfect, with an excellent spectrum throughout the speakers and great dynamic range with a lot of punch in the rear channels. Dialog is always nice and clear, while the score by Danny Elfman (Red Dragon) sounds great in the mix.
The slate of extras tops it off, starting with an all-new audio commentary featuring director of photography Bill Pope, current enough for them to discuss the Red Wedding in HBO's Game of Thrones. It's an excellent commentary, with Bill Pope giving a full critique of Raimi's filming style, revealing little things that are hard to notice. He's never critical, but it's a great analysis of the movie and of Raimi's career. Next, we have a whole slew of interviews, both current and vintage, featuring nearly every member of the cast and crew of any importance whatsoever. They run probably three hours total and cover just about any aspect of the movie you might want to hear about. With some original storyboards, trailers, a vintage press kit and television spots, this is, without question, the definitive edition of Darkman.
Action, comedy, violence, and cinematic achievement: these are the things and more that come along with watching Sam Raimi's great Darkman. Having not seen the movie in twenty years, it's easy to dismiss it as a cult favorite that's a lot of fun, but it turns out to be more than that. Without it, we wouldn't have the super hero movies we love today, or at least not in the form we know them. Darkman led the way and now fans get to see the movie in a form the movie deserves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Press Kit