Long before he was handed the keys to the Spider-Man franchise, which he's taken on a rollercoaster ride in three successive entries ranging from generally tedious to pretty good to completely unwatchable, back in 1990 director Sam Raimi tried his hand at creating his own comic book-styled superhero with Darkman. It's not based on an actual comic book, mind you, just done in the style of Batman, Dick Tracy, and other movies for which Danny Elfman provided the score (a de rigeur requirement for the genre). Raimi is certainly a talented guy, and has a sizable fanbase for his Evil Dead pictures, but he's also wildly uneven, as we've all been recently reminded with Spider-Man 3. Though it has a small cadre of fans who will defend it as genius, Darkman is just a really stupid movie. Really stupid.
Liam Neeson, future Batman Begins villain, stars as Dr. Peyton Westlake, the type of '50s-style B-movie scientist who works in a lab filled with Bunsen burners and bubbling test tubes. The good doctor has been struggling with the creation of "liquid skin", an artificial skin grafting technique designed to revolutionize the treatment of burn victims, which is something that will come in awfully handy after a group of thugs decide to blow up his lab with him in it. Horribly disfigured and presumed dead, Westlake salvages what equipment he can, sets up shop in an abandoned rust and steam pipe factory (that looks suspiciously similar to the one in RoboCop), and completes his invention, creating a series of latex masks like something out of Mission: Impossible for the purpose of disguising himself to exact retribution against his enemies. Bwaa haa haaa...
Problem is that the 'liquid skin' is unstable, and once exposed to light will last only 99 minutes before Westlake's crazily elaborate masks start to bubble and smoke, giving up the ruse. Hence him wanting to stay in the dark, and the new nickname. Oh yes, there's also some silliness about the accident leaving him invulnerable to pain, as well as having bouts of super-strength and some serious mood swings. You know, the usual dark superhero stuff.
Raimi draws heavily from comic books, pop culture, and old B-movies. The hero is a shamelessly obvious cross between The Shadow and the Phantom of the Opera, with an origin story practically Xeroxed from the pages Swamp Thing. In wink-wink fashion, the picture is filled with goofy montages, and Raimi's restless camera swoops in and out of sets, swirling around the characters at severely canted angles. What fans the movie has have responded to its hyperactive stylistics and its intentional camp (a decade and a half before Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse segment, one of the villains here has a machine gun for an artificial leg). The danger in this approach is that it begs a "love it or hate it" reaction, and there's just too much in the movie that doesn't work.
With no less than five credited screenwriters, what passes for a script feels like it was cobbled together by a group of comic book nerds who have no business trying to write for a living, fanboys in love with the style of the medium but ignorant of the basic principles of storytelling. The Darkman plot is a blatant mish-mash of familiar stories, and its dialogue groaningly juvenile (the film received an R rating from the MPAA, primarily for foul language). Pushing suspension of disbelief to absurd levels, we're expected to accept that not only can the hero's special masks instantly and flawlessly replicate an entire human face (including teeth), but also change his height and weight, and repair his damaged vocal cords such that he can mimic anyone's voice, until the mask is taken off, at which point he returns to a husky growl. No one expects realism from a movie like this, but outright thudding stupidity is really hard to swallow.
Darkman was a modestly-budgeted production (no expensive Anton Furst sets or art direction here), and did well enough at the box office to make back its money and instigate a couple of direct-to-video sequels with a replacement lead (Arnold Vosloo, later villain of the equally-dumb Mummy movies). It has a small cult following, enough so that I figured I should give it another shot. But no, I'm sorry, it's not good, and time hasn't been kind to it either. The blue-screen effects are atrocious, and the monotonous Danny Elfman score is one of the composer's least inspired efforts. This is one superhero who should remain in the shadows.
The HD DVD:
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
I don't know what's going on at Universal these days. They've been cranking out catalog titles on HD DVD, including some really good movies that ought to sell a lot of copies, usually with dated video masters that don't look so great in High Definition. But when it comes time to release a crappy movie like Darkman that has a tiny cult audience, that one looks pretty damn nice. Who would've thought it?
The source elements used for the transfer have a small amount of dirt and occasional specks, but nothing too severe. The image has quite good sharpness with only minor and rare occurrences of edge enhancement artifacts (in fact, some haloing that might be mistaken for edge enhancement is actually just poor blue-screen VFX compositing). Fine object detail, including skin pores on the actors' faces, is excellent. Very little grain is apparent, usually well handled when it does intrude. Colors and contrast range are very nice, and the picture has a terrific sense of depth. All in all, the movie looks great, even if High Definition does expose most of the awful visual effects for how bad they really are.
The HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
Well anyway, don't get too excited. Even though the picture quality looks great and the soundtrack has lossless encoding, the audio sounds pretty much like garbage. Some of this is due to limitations of the movie itself, and some due to a lackluster 5.1 remixing of the original Dolby Surround source. In any case, the results aren't impressive. Danny Elfman's score is about the only thing that fares well here, presented with a fair sense of presence and some mild bass. Dialogue is also clear, which I guess is a compliment. Unfortunately, once the action scenes rev up the whole soundtrack just dies. Gunshots sound weak and hollow. Explosions are piss-poor. There's almost no surround activity the entire movie, even during the most frenetic scenes. Frankly, it sounds awful.
Subs & Dubs:
The DVD edition of Darkman wasn't exactly loaded with supplements, but it did come with a trailer and some production notes, neither of which have been ported over to the HD DVD.