Darkman (1990) review

Sam Raimi's take on the superhero genre is about as bizarre as you would expect from the man who made the "Evil Dead" series. Originally, Raimi wanted to make a Batman film, but after failing to get the rights he decided to write his own superhero script and I am glad he did. This is the type of film that will seem familiar to you even on a first viewing, blending as it does elements from many different eighties films, but manages to create something unique from its chaotic influences.
The film's protagonist is Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a scientist who conveniently happens to be working on creating artificial skin (to help burn victims). Westlake's experiments with the synthetic dermis are confounded by it breaking down after 99 minutes. His girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) is an attorney who has recently discovered a shady deal going on between a land developer and a gangster. After she uncovers the scheme the gangster is sent to Westlake's lab where they beat up the scientist, finally setting fire to the building with him inside leaving him for dead. Needless to say, it would be a short film if he had died in the fire. Westlake's body is found floating down the river, now heavily bandaged and unable to feel pain since his nerves were destroyed, he is ready to take on his new persona as a vengeful vigilante. Utilising his skin technology he is able to manufacture perfect masks of various people's faces, gaining access to their circle before taking them out one by one. He also meets up with Julie again, but is unable to spend longer than an hour with her at a time as his face begins to disintegrate if he remains in the sun too long.

As I said before, Darkman is the type of film that you might think you have already seen. The plot riffs on "Phantom of the Opera" or "The Fly", Darkman himself is almost a parallel of "Batman" or "Robocop", having his central mission of revenge driving him, there are elements of horror, science-fiction, and superhero action film all mixed together. The prosthetics and make-up work in the film hold up well, especially the Darkman make-up. The fact he is usually seen bandaged helps give a mystique to the character, and his look of long trench-coat and hat is iconic. I personally felt like the film was a mixed bag. It could quite easily have been a great film, but as it is it remains a solid action film. The reason for this is the varying quality of scenes. You will have a fantastic gothic shot of a rain-washed alleyway, watching the water rush down the drain and an expert cross fade to the eye of the injured Peyton Westlake; and then the next scene will be a fairly boring conversation between two people in an office. Obviously, you need some sort of villain, but I felt that the overused plot of property developers could have been easily switched up for something more exciting. The Peyton Westlake/ Darkman story was pretty solid, while the villain was weak and clich├ęd. Similarly, some of the special effects, particularly CG have not aged well, and the use of dutch-angles (I am particularly thinking of the fairground sequence) will either appeal to you or seem overdone. Sam Raimi is a director with a particular vision and should be appreciated for doing his own thing, but sometimes it felt as though the film was perhaps pulling in two directions. First the more singular, creative style of Raimi, and secondly a more marketable, possibly studio-mandated, story that would appeal to people already familiar with other films in the genre.

Overall, I would recommend watching this film. It is entertaining and certainly doesn't take itself too seriously. I found the conceit of having a character who can essentially take the faces of the villains and pass unseen amongst them in this way interesting. The film is quite often played for laughs and does a good job of meshing this with the gothic horror present in other scenes.