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Darkman (1990)
Rated R

Starring: Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, and Colin Friels

Rating:
***1/2
out of
*****

Today, director Sam Raimi is well-known for his Spider-Man trilogy but in 1990, when Darkman was released, he was best-known for his quirky horror films Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. Wanting to broaden his appeal with filmgoers, he created Darkman and made his first superhero film. It was entertaining to revisit Darkman after seeing the Spider-Man films. Surprisingly, Darkman had more of an influence than I thought.

Darkman tells the tale of Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, in his first leading role), who is trying to create synthetic skin that can be used to replace damaged human tissue. Westlake is running into problems getting the skin cells to last more than 99 minutes before disintegrating, but he's made a breakthrough: the skin's life is affected by light. If the skin is kept in the dark, it can last indefinitely.

Westlake's girlfriend, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), is an attorney. She's discovered a memo which appears to show payoffs being made by real estate mogul Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to the local zoning commission. Julie approaches Strack to let him know she's on to his dealings. Strack laughs the discovery off as business-as-usual to make possible a large development he's building in the city. Citing the creation of thousands of jobs and ridding the city of decay as justification for his illegal behavior, Strack warns Julie that she should return the memo to him as soon as possible. A mobster named Durant (Larry Drake) also wants in on the development deal and he would stop at nothing to obtain this evidence to push Strack out of the picture. Before Julie can return to Westlake's apartment laboratory to retrieve the memo, Durant shows up to obtain it. Durant finds the memo in Westlake's bedroom and proceeds to blow his laboratory up in retaliation.

Westlake is thought to be killed in the explosion but, unbeknownst to Julie, he survives. Horribly scarred and comatose, he's found and taken to a hospital, where his nerves have been severed in order to prevent him from feeling the pain of his burns. This technique also renders him unable to control his emotions, or the resulting bursts of adrenaline, giving him tremendous strength. Westlake awakens from his coma and escapes from the hospital.

He returns to his laboratory and salvages enough equipment to resume his research but, instead of using the synthetic skin for medical benefit, he begins to create masks of Durant and his henchmen in order to get revenge for what they've done to him. With the 99 minute time limit on the skin as his weakness, Westlake begins picking off Durant's gang one-by-one without anyone realizing what's happening. That is, until Westlake visits Julie to let her know that he's alive.

Darkman is a vibrant, over-the-top movie that does a good job of capturing the loneliness and alienation that Westlake feels as a result of his newfound condition but does so in a way that's never depressing or all-too-serious. Liam Neeson is perfectly suited to the wide range of emotions he must portray as Raimi's reluctant protagonist. Larry Drake, who at the time was best known for playing Benny on TV's "L.A. Law", makes for a terrifically evil villain. His penchant for collecting the fingers of the people he's killed is a nice touch.

Those that view Darkman after Spider-Man and its sequels should have no trouble seeing the influence this film had on its big budget brethren. Among other things, Raimi's trademark montage sequences, eyeball-zoom shots, and, of course, the Danny Elfman soundtrack all find their way into the later Spider-Man movies. There's no denying, however, that Raimi was also influenced by 1989's Batman, which was darker than many superhero movies of the time. But even though the movie's tone is dark, one obstacle to enjoying it is to take it too seriously. This film is meant to be treated the same way as Raimi's earlier Evil Dead movies. It borders on camp in some scenes -- particularly one involving a carnival game -- not to mention that the film never really addresses the fact that the people Darkman impersonates are all of different heights and weights and no one really notices. It's all part of the fun.

Now over 19 years old, Darkman will probably be remade at some point since Hollywood is running out of ideas. (Raimi himself is remaking The Evil Dead, so I'm probably not too far off on that prediction.) While Darkman was not a runaway box-office success, it did make $33 million and only cost $16 million to make. Darkman also spawned two sequels -- neither of which feature Liam Neeson or direction by Sam Raimi -- that don't stand up to the original film at all.

Darkman was created to appeal to a wider range of filmgoers than Raimi's previous horror outings and I would have to say that Raimi succeeded as the film should appeal to horror fans, science fiction fans, as well as those that like action films with a bit of comedy.

Trivia: After the film's release, there was talk of doing a Darkman TV series, but it never came into fruition. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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