Combustible Celluloid
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With: Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Colin Friels, Larry Drake, Nelson Mashita, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson, Rafael H. Robledo, Dan Hicks, Ted Raimi, Dan Bell, Nicholas Worth, Aaron Lustig, Arsenio 'Sonny' Trinidad, Bruce Campbell
Written by: Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, Joshua Goldin
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 96
Date: 08/23/1990

Darkman (1990)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Everyone... and No One

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Upon its initial release, Darkman was frequently compared to Dick Tracy and Batman, mainly because of the similar, highly artificial comic book-look, as well as similar musical scores by Danny Elfman on all three films. Now that the smoke has cleared, and Hollywood has moved onto other trends, we have Darkman, clear and plain and bright as day (or dark as night). It deserves a second look.

Director Sam Raimi and star Liam Neeson were both unknowns to the general public at the time. Bad guy Larry Drake was known for television's "L.A. Law" and Frances McDormand had received an Oscar nomination for Mississippi Burning. And, of course, Darkman himself was an original character with no prior comic books, toys, or bubble gum cards to help sell the film. Despite these things, Darkman was a modest success, not on the scale of the other two films, but a modest success nonetheless, and it received warm, mostly positive reviews from critics everywhere, including Siskel and Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Joe Bob Briggs.

Darkman is, at its core, a B-movie, disguised as a big budget effort. However, fans of Mr. Raimi's earlier films, The Evil Dead (1983) and Evil Dead II (1987) recognized it for what it was. It's possible to say that it's better than both Batman and Dick Tracy, but this is not to be confused with bigger. The film works better than its predecessors by slipping in underneath what they were striving for. It aimed at a much lower target and hit a bullseye.

Raimi knows how to make comic book movies. They move at a fast pace, develop only enough character to get by, keep things a bit silly, and aim to entertain. Darkman doesn't waste any time pretending to examine its characters' motives. The bad guys are just bad and the good guys just woke up feeling good. The Darkman character takes out a gang of bad guys for revenge. That's it.

To recap, Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist working on a synthetic skin; he has developed a prototype, but it becomes unstable after 99 minutes. An accident in the lab reveals that the skin stays stable in the dark, though for some reason, this seemingly important detail is never used during the rest of the movie. Peyton's girlfriend has obtained a document, called the "Bellasarious Memorandum," which incriminates a powerful businessman. An evil gangster, Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake) traces the document to Peyton's lab and wreaks havoc; he tortures Peyton's lab assistant and blows up the lab, leaving the burned and scarred Peyton for dead. But of course, Peyton uses his synthetic skin and becomes a new superhero.

Raimi shows the anguish that Darkman goes through before he begins his revenge spree. To start, his nerve endings were all severed during the attack, and he cannot feel pain, which also causes him to act a bit crazy. One powerful sequence takes place on an impossibly rainy night. The camera slowly zooms in on an alley, where a box has been placed against a building. The wind blows the box away to reveal our hero curled up on the ground, still attempting to stay dry even though he is sopping wet. There is so much water that a whirlpool forms on the ground. Mr. Raimi zooms in on the whirlpool, then dissolves into Peyton's eye, suggesting his innermost tormented thoughts. On one hand, this is all overblown, but on the other hand, it's great comic book.

In another scene, Raimi apparently invented a camera that could imitate the movement of a "dippy bird" or a "drinking bird" toy. This bird is used to set off the explosion that deforms Peyton.

The Durant character is given a great bad guy gimmick, his cigar chomper, a miniature guillotine that he uses to snip the ends of cigars and deadbeats' fingers. He collects fingers, you see. Our hero, disguised as Durant, even has a wonderful time using this cigar chomper. Forced to try and collect a debt from a "business associate," he chomps a very short cigar and gives an ultimatum. "I need the cash by the time I finish this cigar." Neither Dick Tracy nor Batman ever seem to be having this much fun.

Note: Raimi's frequent star Bruce Campbell has a cameo in the final scene as Darkman's latest disguise. Director John Landis apparently appears, and actor Neal McDonough makes an early appearance as a dockworker. Jenny Agutter is uncredited as a nurse, and John Landis, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen appear in small roles.

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