Darkman is a 1990 superhero film directed and co-written by Sam Raimi. It stars Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake, and Colin Friels. It is a tribute to 1930s Universal horror films, and was made after Sam Raimi was turned down as a director for The Shadow movie.
The film is about a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Neeson) who is nearly killed by crime boss Robert G. Durant (Drake) and corrupt developer Louis Strack, Jr. (Friels) through being tortured and left for dead in a science lab explosion, but survives. He was being targeted because his girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (McDormand), had a memo that implicated her developer boss in dirty zoning deals with crime syndicates, and the memo was in his lab. However, his face and hands are burned off, and the doctors gave him a special treatment that involved severing his nerves, which left him with an inability to feel pain, but heightened emotions due to adrenal overload, which, when he becomes highly emotional, he has enhanced strength.
Westlake had been trying to develop a synthetic skin to replace burnt or damaged skin, but the skin was photosensitive and kept melting in the light. He figured out a way to keep the skin intact for 99 minutes in the light, and that the skin could survive in the dark. After his near-death, he develops skin through 3-D printing and makes a replica of his original face, as well as the faces of his killers, in order to seek vengeance. He poses as the gangsters often to either kill them or trick them into killing each other. While he is successful at seeking justice, he is frequently set back by the mask time limits and his struggles with his scientific experiments.
The film is a dark and sad story, more along the lines of The Phantom of the Opera and House of Wax, as well as The Crow graphic novel, than a triumphant superhero story. It is rare to see a superhero story that is an original character, and not adapted from a comic book/graphic novel. Darkman was very successful, both on a box office level and a cult following level, and spawned two sequels: Darkman II: The Return of Durant, and Darkman III: Die Darkman Die.
Liam Neeson delivers an honest and sympathetic performance as Westlak, the caring scientist whose life is destroyed by Durant and Strack, and who becomes Darkman in his quest for vengeance. While he doesn’t feel remorse over killing Durant’s henchmen, he often feels sadness and anger over losing Julie, his livelihood, and being reduced to a monstrous face wrapped up in bandages. Some of the saddest scenes in the film are when Peyton is alone in his makeshift lab in an abandoned building, screaming and crying, unable to control his emotion levels. Even if he defeats the villains and Julie accepts him, he’ll never have his life back, always changing masks 99 minutes at a time.
Frances McDormand delivers a strong and measured performance, albeit in a role that is mostly reduced to being the girlfriend. Julie is intelligent and strong-willed, and is an intellectual match for Peyton. She isn’t a victim or a damsel, and investigates into the background surrounding Peyton’s supposed death.
Larry Drake is fantastic as Durant. He brings the right kind of menace and humor to this role, and gives a lot of character to this role. It is clear that Drake is enjoying playing Durant, and it is one of his best performances ever.
Colin Friel was excellent as Strack, playing a sleazy and slimeball yuppie prick. He is so without morals that, just a few days after Peyton’s supposed death, he’s already putting the moves on Julie, a still-grieving girlfriend. He is low and despicable, but a great villain in this film.
Danny Elfman did the music score, and it is epic and beautiful. Like I previously stated in my review of Nightbreed, Elfman can take his Batman score and re-work it to sound strong, dark, and exciting for any low-budget sci-fi or horror film to have. His talent is a gift that elevates any film because of his magnificent score.
Sam Raimi has a talent for making films that have relatable, interesting characters; great action sequences (a sequence involving a helicopter is phenomenal); dark humor, and a sci-fi or horror brent. His films feels unique and special, a creative touch that is of his own style.
Darkman is an excellent film. It is sad and epic and powerful, is a standout in the genre of superhero films and is a wonderful tribute to the Universal horror films that were so beloved to Raimi’s childhood.