A brilliant scientist left for dead returns to exact vengeance on the people who tried to kill him.
Sam Raimi (“Drag Me to Hell”, “Army of Darkness”) is a director whose films I almost always enjoy (there are exceptions- looking at you “Oz the Great and Powerful”). Raimi is a director I’ve had an interest in for a long time for a few reasons: 1) he grew up in Michigan, 2) he got his start making low a budget horror movie, 3) that low budget horror movie just happened to be “The Evil Dead”, which is one of my all time favorite horror movies, and 4) I find his directing style to be absolutely hysterical. There’s so much movement and action in his directing that it feels as if were watching panels of an action comic strip or a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. It gives the film a lively, almost frenetic energy that helps to move the film from one scene to the next. Even when the story grows a little thin, the direction is engaging and entertaining enough to help the story on its way. While “Darkman” might not have the same comic mania as “Evil Dead II” or the stylized action of “Spider-man”, it is wholly and undeniably a Sam Raimi film, and that right there is enough for me.
“If you’re not going to kill me… I have things to do.”
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, “Cold Pursuit”) is a scientist working on a new type of synthetic skin, which he has been unable to successfully keep stable in the sunlight for longer than 100 minutes (after the 100-minute mark, the skin quickly deteriorates). Meanwhile, Peyton’s girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”), a lawyer, realizes that her boss Louis Strack (Colin Friels, ”Dark City”) might have ties with a mob boss named Durant (Larry Drake, “Darkman II: The Return of Durant”), and threatens to investigate the ties further. Soon, criminals break into Peyton and Julie’s apartment, demanding that Peryton give them the evidence that Julie claimed to have had. Peyton swears he’s unaware of any evidence that might pertain to the mob bosses, but the criminals don’t buy it, and they throw him in a vat of acid. Peyton awakens weeks later to find out he’s been declared dead, and the acid he had been tossed in left him horribly disfigured. Angry, he sets out for revenge on those who wronged him.
As I’ve already mentioned, Raimi’s uber-stylized directing is easily the best part of this movie. For those unfamiliar with Raimi’s style, think of him as a slightly toned-down Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”). Both directors tend to use quick and flashy editing, fast camera movements that often coordinate with their actors, and they also tend to write lines of dialogue that sound a little off, but somehow it still works in the worlds they’ve created (“I used to date a girl with one leg” “What happened?” “I broke it off!”). Sam Raimi’s movies always feel as if they’re in a slightly cartoonish world; even the more disturbing of his films tend to have comedic moments (there’s a scene in “Drag Me to Hell” where an anvil falls on a demon’s head and its eyeball pops out and lands in our protagonist’s mouth- how much more cartoony can you get?).
As far as his camera work goes, Raimi is known for capturing motion. He loves to photograph wind and rain and storms, but he also loves camera moves that swoop over characters or whip around the room. This film in particular has a few great deep staging shots. There’s one particular shot when Westlake returns to his lab and we start rather close on just his face, but as Westlake wanders into the room, the camera pulls back and we see the entire lab. It’s a pretty impressive shot, and there are a few other technically-impressive shots as well.
Raimi’s writing in this film is also a bit cheesy, but purposefully so. As Raimi sets up Durant as the villain, he makes his personality akin to Big Boy Caprice (“Dick Tracy”) or Neville Sinclair (“The Rocketeer”). Durant’s personality feels so outrageous that it clearly draws inspiration from the mustache-twirling baddies of early serial films or comic book villains. While Raimi doesn’t go so far as to apply heavy amounts of makeup to make his characters look like cartoon characters like Warren Beatty did for “Dick Tracy”, he does write his characters so that they have equally cheesy lines and almost laughably malicious hobbies (Durant collects the fingers of those who don’t deliver on their promises).
Another thing I liked about this movie was the tone it took. While this movie does have a lot of funny moments, the overall story is surprisingly dark. For one thing, Westlake’s face is horribly disfigured, and pretty much his only goals in the movie are to get revenge on those who disfigured him and to find a way to fix his face (in a way, that plotline feels remarkably similar to “Deadpool”). His motivations are pretty selfish; he doesn’t become a vigilante to help people, just the opposite in fact. There is a scene when Darkman tortures a person for information, and then after the person gives him what he needs Darkman still kills him. I personally love this kind of stuff. I know it doesn’t make for a particularly likable hero, but at least it’s more original than the action we get in the overabundance of PG-13 Marvel flicks we’re getting today. You certainly wont see Ant-Man maliciously throwing a random guy into oncoming traffic in the next Avengers movie and then laughing maniacally about it.
If I were to say a few negative things about this film it is that the story itself is a bit thin. Essentially, this film’s plot is the same thing as “The Toxic Avenger” (only the Toxic Avenger is actually a hero, while Darkman is just a guy trying to get revenge)- guy falls in acid and is extremely disfigured, and then he becomes a vigilante. The plot doesn’t go much deeper than that (though there are a few scenes that try to develop the love story between Peyton and Julie). This film relies on more style than it does substance, and that’s not inherently a bad thing; I just wish the characters and world had a bit more depth to them.
Overall this is a fun film. It’s not a great film, but it will entertain the right audience. I feel like people who like enjoy ‘pop-culturey’ movies like “Dick Tracy” or even Raimi’s own version of “Spider-man”, they’ll probably get a kick out of this. I wrestled with whether to give this movie a 3/5 or a 3.5/5 throughout the whole time I wrote this review, and I decided to go with a 3.5 just because of the original character. While Darkman’s origin story might feel similar to many of the comic book heroes we know and love today, Darkman’s character and arc is unique and dark enough for me to enjoy it more than a lot of modern superhero flicks.
Endnote: For me, the cherry on top was the Bruce Campbell (“Bubba Ho-Tep”) cameo at the end.
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