Monday, July 27, 2009
Sam Raimi spent the first decade of his career straddling the line between potential hit-maker and one-trick pony. After his over-the-top gangster pastiche Crimewave tanked, he ran back to his debut film, only to silence any cynics by creating the greatest horror-comedy in the history of the genre. It renewed faith in the director, who decided to throw his talents into another genre film, albeit about comic book heroes instead of criminals. Released a year after Tim Burton's Batman proved that the genre could be taken seriously (though that film still has one foot planted firmly in cartoonish abandon), Darkman built upon the raves the director received for Evil Dead 2 by showcasing his ability to make a good film outside of the horror genre.
That is not to say that Darkman fully breaks from Raimi's bread and butter. Based on his own short story, it pays homage to classic Universal horror films as much as it does the superhero genre. After all, the story of a man, hideously disfigured, inventing disguises that allow him to cover his wounds as well as seek revenge calls to mind The Phantom of the Opera and The Invisible Man more than Batman or Green Lantern. Comic books inform the dialogue, however, which is gleefully over the top without slipping off the edge as it did in Crimewave.
Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) receives his hideous wounds when mobster Durant (Larry Drake) confronts him in his lab. Durant wants an incriminating document held by Peyton's girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand), and his thugs burn the poor scientist's face with acid before blowing up the whole place altogether. Peyton survives with massive burns that leave him with an inability to control his emotions and a thirst for vengeance.
He salvages his project, synthetic skin developed just for burn victims and the like, and finds that his overactive adrenal glands give him super-strength and a high tolerance for pain. The only downside to his fake skin? Something within it reacts to light, so his masks deteriorate after 99 minutes. Ergo, he becomes the titular Darkman, a mysteriously, bandaged hero who can also assume the identity of anyone he chooses with his skin molds.
Raimi, clearly still operating at the peak of his camp, has great fun with the movie. His offbeat style of rapid cutting and sudden, swift camera movement doesn't integrate into the story as well as it did for the Evil Dead movies, but it's a noticeable step up from Crimewave. The action is so slick and pulpy the frames might as well be cels of an actual comic. The final fight, on an unfinished building, contains all the joyous revelry that was so sadly lacking in the similarly constructed climax of Spider-Man 3. Its special effects should also be noted; some of the prosthetic make-up cannot be said to look realistic -- particularly around the skeletal mouth -- but the effect of Peyton peeling off a flawless skin mask to reveal a perfectly acceptable face underneath is impressive. Action scenes, though surprisingly few and far between, contain all the visual invention of Raimi's early films but on a budget that allows him to really display his acuity. What a shame that the director later turned to limp, unimaginative CG.
Raimi's dialogue is cheesy, but it works because the actors play it straight enough to give it some weight but light enough to lets us know they're in on the joke. Neeson can't help but ooze gravitas, and even with his face hidden in prosethetics and bandages and his voice altered for much of the film, he makes you care about this strange, frightening hero. McDormand has little screen time, but she establishes Julie as a capable person with her own drives, far removed from the two-dimensional Vicki Vale of the previous year's mega-hit. Casting "real" actors in action flicks doesn't always pay off, but it allows for the opportunity of that actor crafting a three-dimensional character with shades of moral gray, and Neeson and McDormand do a wonderful job.
Supposedly, the studios tampered with the film a bit after some test screenings went badly, though apparently it performed better after some crazier elements were cut and Danny Elfman's score was added. Even without whatever footage the studio hacked out of the film, Darkman remains a thoroughly fun ride. It obviously follows in the footsteps of Batman, but its embracing of old horror pictures made some comparisons with Burton's Expressionist vision inevitable. Far from perfect, Darkman nevertheless demonstrated that Sam Raimi could well become one of the most visually inventive directors to come out of the '80s, and you can see why someone might hand him the reins to a franchise as big as Spider-Man.