A brilliant scientist is left for dead and returns to
get his revenge on the ones who tried to kill him.
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi,
Daniel Goldin, Joshua Goldin
Starring Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake,
Colin Friels, Ted Raimi, Danny Hicks, Bruce Campbell
This marks Sam Raimi’s first studio film, his first superhero film, and his first collaboration with Universal Studios (whom he’d work with when it came time for Army of Darkness) and all this only a few years after blowing everybody’s minds with Evil Dead II. What do you do when you can’t get the rights to comic book characters like The Shadow or Batman? You make your own! And that’s just what Raimi did in creating Dr. Peyton Westlake. He’s part scientist and part Phantom of the Opera but all ass-kicking, bone breaking, badass.
Before we meet our hero, we are introduced to the film’s villain, Robert G. Durant (he likes to introduce himself that way) played with charm and enthusiasm by none other than Larry Drake. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, his face will definitely strike a chord. He is a veteran character actor of film and TV and was also the titular doctor in Dr. Giggles (1992), a movie that made me fear dentists for quite some time. Durant is a mobster with a penchant for collecting the fingers of his victims as he steals their properties or takes over their illegal schemes and that’s just what he does in the opening scene. It also sets the tone for Raimi’s movie in that there will be carnage, shitloads of bullets, and explosions galore. Any Raimi fan will spot a couple familiar faces amongst Durant’s crew: Danny Hicks plays Skip, a thug with a trick up his pants leg and Sam’s brother Ted who plays Rick and is Darkman’s first victim (Sam does love killing his brother, doesn’t he?). After claiming a couple finger souvenirs from his latest conquest, Durant is on his way. Then we meet Peyton Westlake (Neeson) as he is deep into his trials on his synthetic skin that he’s been designing for burn victims but cannot seem to solve one critical problem: the cells of the skin only last for 99 minutes before deteriorating. As he racks his brain for a solution, the lights go out, and his assistant, Yakitito, notices the cells have passed 100 minutes. Westlake deduces that the cells must be photosensitive and is excited by this new development, “another piece of the puzzle” he says. But his triumph is short-lived as the lights going out was an ominous entrance by Durant and his crew. They are in Westlake’s apartment looking for a memo that his girlfriend, Julie (McDormand), found that connects developer Louis Strack (Friels) has been bribing zoning board members to fast track his designs for the city and Durant wants the memo as well. Westlake knows nothing of the memo but Durant isn’t buying it and proceeds to destroy Westlake’s lab, his assistant (courtesy of a gunshot from Rick), and then Peyton himself. This scene really shows the Raimi touch as Neeson is thrown into three glass cabinets and we see from the inside of the cabinets as his head is rammed through each time. The camera work is very reminiscent of what he did with Evil Dead II, a frenzied kinetic energy to the action scenes really adds to the experience and what we’ve come to expect from Sam when he’s behind the camera. In an elaborate set up, Durant rigs Westlake’s apartment to blow up and they exit. Peyton struggles to get to the desk and stop the explosion from happening but he’s too late. Julie arrives just in time to see their home explode but doesn’t notice Peyton being thrown from the building as a human fireball into the adjacent harbor. At this point, Peyton Westlake is dead and Darkman is soon to be born. While Darkman has no real superpowers per se, what he does have he uses to his advantage but it also is a weakness of sorts. The doctors trying to help him, after the majority of his skin has been burned beyond repair, have severed the pain receptors in his body so he will no longer feel pain. This comes at a price though because now that his body is denied one of its primary sources of information, it feeds off his emotions that much more. Adrenalin flows unchecked through his body giving him more than average strength. These things are what Darkman will use in his quest to destroy Durant and all who stand in his way.
The rest of the movie is Darkman/Westlake using his technology to infiltrate and sabotage Durant’s gang while also trying to reconnect with Julie who believed he was dead. He returns to her multiple times but only for short visits before his face/hands degrade and his new found visage is revealed. Peyton follows Julie in the shadows like the Phantom, always there and always watching. The scenes where Neeson loses his shit from someone calling him a freak or when he revisits his accident in his mind are full of visual effects of synapses popping and flashes of color that really make you feel like you’re seeing comic panels brought to life. Darkman would go on to have a run of comics after the film as well as two direct-to-video sequels with Arnold Vosloo taking over as Westlake. I remember seeing this as a kid and really enjoying it. Saw it just yesterday and it’s over-the-top action and violence, along with Neeson’s amped up performance, fit right in with Sam Raimi’s aesthetic and proves that he was a talented filmmaker way back when he was making movies in the woods. Also, pay attention to the end as there’s a nice little cameo from one of Sam’s long time friends, Bruce Campbell.