You would be hard pressed to find a more definitive superhero of schlock cinema than the antihero at the center of Sam Raimi’s Darkman. The film wallows gleefully in the tropes of genre camp sensibilities, hyper-violent, over-stylized, and wonderfully entertaining. Raimi, the master of elevated B cinema, approaches Darkman with such unabashed love and attention it’s impossible not to share in his affection. And the stilted, ham-fisted noir dialogue, clawing through the teeth of its hard nosed characters, inviting nothing more than a good time (it lets you know what you’re in for from the opening scene) is a pleasant reminder that Liam Neeson began his career in many of the same places he’s reverted back to in his later, post-Taken genre years. This guy wasn’t always Oskar Schindler.
In 1990 he was Dr. Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist obsessively working on a synthetic skin generation technology. Call it the early days of the 3D printer. Westlake is inching ever so close to perfecting his technology, only the skin his machine produces destabilizes and dissolves at 99 minutes. Always 99 minutes. And wouldn’t you know it, he figures out what is keeping his skin from working completely just as a crew of henchmen break into his bayside laboratory.
These henchmen, led by Robert G. Durant (B Movie Hall-of-Famer, Larry Drake) aren’t interested in Peyton or his work; they’re in search of the ominous “important legal document” his girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), has in her possession. It’s nothing more than a plot device to get Durant and his cronies into Peyton’s lab so they can kill his assistant, smash his head through some glass cabinets, burn him severely, and rig up a fuse to trigger a bomb sending Peyton – a human fireball – rocketing through the air and into the bay. Presumed dead. But he is recovered and taken to the hospital as a John Doe, where he is covered head to toe in bandages and poked and prodded by curious doctors.
Something has changed in Peyton, something has altered his very being. He has super strength, an aversion to pain, and some seriously messed up visions. And so this bandaged man, free from the constraints of the living, obsessively works to exact revenge.
But Darkman has more working for it than the typical plot trajectory of a superhero seeking his pound of flesh. The bandages are great, creating a Frankensteinian creature who is both doctor and patient. Peyton returns to his work in his destroyed lab – now with an on-the-nose fiery pit in the center – and re-creates his own face in order to reach out to Julie. Because Raimi and his team of screenwriters have made sure to instill their hero with more motivation than revenge. He loves, and he wants to be loved again, if only for a little while. He uses his skin reconstruction tech to rebuild his face and reach out to Julie (for 99 minutes), to muck up the works in Durant’s criminal enterprises, and even to impersonate Durant himself in one clever scene. These unique plot constructions, and Raimi’s earnest affection for his subjects, is what differentiates Darkman from imitators and from the low-rent sequels to follow.
Let’s not forget, in all this pathos and high-camp adventure, that some wonderfully crazy shit happens along the way regarding Peyton’s revenge plot and, more specifically, his slipping mental state. Especially this whacked out meltdown he has at a carnival with Julie. I mean, look at this…
…How wonderfully unhinged.
As Peyton, Neeson is equal amounts madness, anger, and unhinged burning desire. He allows the character to wallow in self pity from time to time, inviting the audience to feel sorry for him, fueling his anger and propelling him headlong into a sort of controlled insanity. And as an adversary, there isn’t anyone better than Larry Drake this side of William Forsythe. Durant is relentlessly cold and murderous, complete with his gross collection of human fingers from his victims. He is the appropriate, black-hearted flip side of our emotionally-driven hero. Love battling hate in the disparate mean streets, breathing with life and beautifully textured seediness.
Darkman is the Godfather of B-movies, the summit of undercard cinema that was hot in the early 90s. It thrives on the malicious mentality of its characters, and an intentionally artificial world of murderers and thieves. It carries echoes of the Universal horror films of the 30s, The Shadow, and manages to forge its own path, a depraved, inventive path through the brilliant B-movie mind of Sam Raimi.