When is a superhero movie not a superhero movie? When it's Darkman, the wild pulp adventure that prefigured Raimi's eventual direction of the Spider-Man franchise. Originally intending to do a film version of The Shadow but denied the rights, Raimi developed the story of medical researcher Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), whose girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) unwittingly embroils him in a potential political scandal. Hideously burned and left for dead by gangsters, Peyton uses his incipient liquid skin technology and severed nerve endings as the "super-powers" that allow him to become Darkman, a grotesque avenging angel who feels no physical pain but whose emotions have become dangerous intensified.
The delightfully delirious results play like some lost E.C. comic, brought to life with Raimi's trademark cockeyed angles, loony montage and voluminous bag of photographic tricks. Like The Quick and the Dead, Darkman finds Raimi no longer the boy of The Evil Dead, but not quite the man of A Simple Plan and Spider-Man. Emboldened by a studio hungry for the next Batman (after that 1989 film's smash success), Raimi invites to the playground Batman composer Danny Elfman, whose pop-operatic score compliments the film's gleefully over-the-top macho profanity and cartoon violence. Aside from The Shadow, Raimi's neo-Grand Guignol story takes a cue from The Phantom of the Opera, but the tongue never strays far from the cheek: Darkman is a bit like The Crow if it were fun-loving instead of oppressively emo.
One thing's for sure: you've never seen Neeson do anything like this. The stage-trained actor gives an emotionally (and, at times, physically) acrobatic performance that's aware of the material's melodrama but commits to it instead of mocking it. McDormand plays his "straight woman," first adding to the sick comedy of it all with her innocent misunderstanding of the depth of her boyfriend's torment and later being drawn into it by Peyton's resistance to confiding in her. Larry Drake, best known as loveable man-child Benny Stulwicz on the hit NBC drama L.A. Law, surprised audiences with his witty turn as sadistic gangster Robert Durant, while Colin Friels is suitably slimy as the real-estate developer with designs on Julie.
Darkman may be rough around the edges, but it won my heart in 1990 and only seems more welcome today with its homemade charm that completely escapes modern blockbuster cinema. Raimi flings at the screen uniquely hyperactive visuals, married to crazymaking sound, all part of his masterplan to draw us into a subjective view of Peyton's journey beyond sanity. It's dark stuff, but Raimi succeeds in making us root for Peyton even when we know he's gone beyond the pale and perhaps irrevocably lost his opportunity for redemption. Plus, there are explosions (lots of them), high-flying stunts (including a crackerjack sequence with Darkman hanging from a speeding helicopter), and a carnival sequence that would make Tod Browning smile. If you've a taste for Hollywood-funded outré, Darkman is one of those rare films that fits the bill.
Darkman's Blu-ray debut wipes the floor with the previous DVD edition. The film's opticals inevitably lead to some visual blemishes (like dirt and some soft shots), but Universal gives us a thoroughly accurate presentation that makes the film look as new as it did in its big-screen debut. Black level is excellent, an important factor for a film that often delves into shadow. Contrast is well calibrated, colors are generally vibrant, and detail is revelatory, head and shoulders over the DVD. Raimi's old-fashioned approach to sound design (and the age of the film) spell a relatively underwhelming lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, but every cartoony sound effect is perfectly clear and Danny Elfman's score sounds robust; just don't expect maximum exploitation of the surround channels—it's a fairly front-heavy mix.
Unfortunately, Darkman comes with zero extras on Blu-ray; it's a shame Universal couldn't dig out at leat an EPK or a trailer, but perhaps the elements on those archival materials were deemed too ratty (or not worth the expense of compensating the talent). Still, it's a bona fide treat to get Darkman looking so good in hi-def Blu-ray.
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