It seems a little odd to consider now, but at the time of its release in 1990, "Darkman" was simply the studio debutante ball for director Sam Raimi. Now, two decades after its moderate late-summer success, the film has grown into an interesting puzzle piece in the filmmaker's career, bringing him from the no-budget wizardry of "Evil Dead II" to the big-budget maestro we know today. Fraught with growing pains and a few clunky ideas, "Darkman" is truly one of Raimi's freshest creations -- a pure shot of eccentricity, barnstorming visuals, and affection for the dark side of justice.
Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is on the verge of creating synthetic skin in his laboratory, yet chemical complications keep the faux flesh from lasting more than 99 minutes at a time. Westlake's attorney girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) has discovered an incriminating memo during her dealings with client Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels), tying the corrupt land developer to ruthless gangster Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Out to retrieve the memo, Durant breaks into Westlake's lab, thrashing the good doctor and destroying his building. Burned to a crisp and stripped of the ability to feel pain, a horribly disfigured Westlake retreats to the shadows to face his new reality, restarting his research into synthetic skin. Now armed with a series of lifelike masks and unstoppable rage, Westlake seeks revenge on those who cruelly took away his life, while watching Julie from afar, desperate for a chance to rekindle their love.
"Darkman" is a scrappy superhero origin tale of sorts, with Raimi attempting to build his own hero from spare parts, influenced by the brooding champions of justice from his own youth. The effort is sensational, showcasing the filmmaker pushing through a modest budget and resistant cast to form his own tattered vision of daredevil bravery, fueled by a sickening, churning pit of revenge. As much as Raimi is angling to kickstart a franchise here, "Darkman" is also a rare opportunity for the director to pay tribute to the great Universal Monsters of cinematic history, scripting Westlake not as a brawny man of action, but a tragic figure of perpetual agony, forced to start anew without his beloved Julie, his settled scientific mind, or a face to present to the outside world.
Raimi runs with the antihero overtones, sketching out Westlake through spectacular shadow play and gothic overtones, creating a bleak figure of science working his way up to killing Durant as a way to reclaim his life. Outside of some meat-cleaver editing jumps and a spastic use of bluescreen, "Darkman" is wonderfully bonkers in the image department -- the picture still inhaling the macabre asbestos left behind by Raimi's eye-gouging masterpiece, "Evil Dead II." Teeming with swirling camera work, spirited montages, and flecks of surrealism to communicate Westlake's fractured state of mind, "Darkman" excitedly slurps up all of its Raimi foam, providing an exhaustive visual experience bursting with the helmer's trademarked blend of the sinister and the Stooge. "Darkman" is Raimi firing away on the studio's dime, the filmmaker unaware of the politics that would soon come to calm his once legendary eye for optical exaggeration.
In the lead role, Neeson delivers solidly as the unfortunate soul, selling all the righteous throbs of agony while maintaining Westlake's intelligence and desperation, a tempestuous juncture captured brilliantly in a particularly bizarre confrontation between the trembling hero and a cheating carny over the rightful owner of a stuffed animal. McDormand seems more confused than torn as Julie, while submitting considerate work as the heart of the piece. Best is Drake as villain Durant, excreting oil as the heavy with a finger collection and a tremendously cool grasp of the fantastical. It's a fun, unsettling performance.
The VC-1 encoded image (1.85:1 aspect ratio) is a real disappointment, with true detail difficult to survey, as faces and nuances are rubbed out by a modest but noticeable DNR wash. Actors have a waxy appearance (outside of Westlake's masks), while the finer points of fabrics and set design are lost in the smear. Contrast issues occasionally arrive, further weakening the image quality, while shadow detail is consistently crushed, taking even more information out of the frame. There's some extremely minor print damage as well. On the plus side, colors are treated kindly, with a generous push of reds and blues, helping the potency of the make-up work along, while maintaining the carnival sideshow atmosphere of the picture.
The DTS-HD 5.1 sound mix isn't nearly as active as hoped, with most of the action feeling leashed. Explosions and fisticuffs retain an inviting low-end rumble, while some directionality is introduced through atmospherics and a few of the more energized adrenaline adventures. Dialogue exchanges are crisp and frontal, comfortably balanced with the sound effects and Danny Elfman's wandering score, which is kindly encouraged throughout the movie. There's an acceptable fidelity to the track, but it never punches through as hoped, helping to awkwardly age the film somewhat with a low-impact sound event.
English SDH subtitles are included.
Climaxing with an aerial confrontation that contains some tremendous stuntwork, "Darkman" ends up delivering the big action beats, successfully concluding a tricky story of revenge and shrouded destiny with a juicy conclusion of customary villain exposition and a tight bind of suspense. While rough around the edges, "Darkman" represents Raimi when he was still hungry, birthing an askew semi-horror tale with a tremendous push of screen gymnastics, taking his hero to a particular franchise launching pad that was foiled by two woeful DTV sequels. "Darkman" remains a powerful picture, isolating a pitch of superhero sadness while amplifying the rest with a comforting church-bell clang of violence. A sly Bruce Campbell cameo is merely icing on the cake.