With the recent release of Spider-Man 2 to DVD, it's time to take a step back nearly a decade and a half and take a look at Darkman, a film that should come to be seen as a milestone in Spidey director Sam Raimi's career.
1.) The film is Raimi's first major studio release (Universal). Sam has worked within the studio system exclusively since then, but one has to remember that prior to Darkman in 1990, the incredibly successful (the first Spider-Man alone taking in a measley ....cough... 800 million bucks worldwide ...cough....ahem) Detroit native's only real claims to fame were the first two Evil Dead films (wonders of independent filmmaking in their own right) and Crimewave, which I think Raimi and the Coen Bros. would rather like to forget.
Plus, this is the first time Raimi worked with established actors (Liam Neeson, just prior to a little film called Schindler's List and that whole Qui-Gon Jinn thing, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake)...and not just his personal whipping boys Bruce Campbell and brother Ted Raimi...though they do have small bit parts in the film in question..."fake shemps" are never forgotten.
2.) Taking this into consideration, this was probably Raimi's first brush with a so-called general audience, and not just the denizens of cult and horror film fandom. If memory serves, Darkman was a fairly sizeable late summer release for Universal in 1990, and it certainly was where I first discovered Sam's work. I woulda been 16 in 1990,and just starting to catch the film bug. I can remember reading some of the press on Darkman circa this period, and the constant mentions of his Evil Dead work caused me to seek those films out for the first time. Being a self-proclaimed lifetime comic book fanboy, Darkman's plot "spoke" to me, and when viewed in hindsight with Evil Dead 2:Dead By Dawn, one can certainly see the similiarities in story on both films with the archetypical comic book superhero origin story....
Viewing Darkman now, one can see an inkling of things to come in both Spider-Man films, in terms of theme and filmmaking technique. As Bruce Campbell has said in that past about his experiences with Raimi on the Spider-Man films: "Sam explained it pretty good makin' the first one - we were shooting the ring sequence, and he turned at one point and he said, "Ya know...we're doin' the same gags, we just have a lot more money..."
Darkman's plot is a fairly straightforward one, involving scientist Peyton Westlake (Neeson), a researcher seeking to develop an artificial skin for burn victims (this is what we like to call "foreshadowing"...come on, can you say "foreshadowing"?). The experimental skin isn't completely a success, being photosensative and lasting only 99 minutes. Westlake is romantically attached to Julie (Frances McDormand, of Blood Simple, Fargo and Almost Famous), a city-worker who stumbles across some nefarious transactions in the form of a memo. Her boss, city developer Strack ( a very good performance by Colin Friels) isn't exactly on the up and up, and tends to employ racketeer Robert Durant (Larry Drake, of L.A. Law and Dr. Giggles fame) to carry out his "dirty laundry". When Strack discovers Julie's possession of said memo, he sics Durant and his cronies (look for Ted Raimi as "Rick") on Westlake , thinking he may know where the document is. This leads to the burning and disfigurement of Westlake , and explosive destruction of his lab.
Westlake survives, and after an escape from the hospital and some exposition on the scientist having recieved a procedure that has deadened his sense of pain to accomadate for having been severely burned. The side-effects? Adrenilin runs unchecked through his body now, resulting in amazing strength. The drawbacks? He ain't got no friggin' face, and is field dressed in more gauze than Im-Ho-Tep. Westlake then proceeds to do his best Phantom of the Opera/Shadow impression as he tries to save his girlfriend's life, perfect the skin, and seek revenge against the thugs who practically stole his life from him. See if you can spot two reoccurring Raimi signature pieces (the Oldsmobile 88 and Bruce Campbell)...
Widescreen transfer and the sound's great (especially the score presented in Dolby 5.1). Though, it seems that the digital format is not too kind to some of the process and backscreen shots....you can pick 'em out easily, but are forgiveable, seeing how much the director accomplished with so little budget.
Typical of early DVD releases, Darkman has very little to offer in ways of supplemental material...this makes one hope for a future "Special/Collectors/Ultimate/ Anniversary/ a Partridge in a Pear Tree" edition of the film. I personally would like to see an audio commentary at some point pop up, as well as maybe a documentary on the making of the film. It would be interesting to hear Sam Raimi's thoughts (especially post-Spidey franchise) on this early foray into cinematic superheroics.
THEATRICAL TRAILER- For a film that's basically a dark comic revenge flick, the savvy Universal marketting boys were keen to try and sell this picture in much the same ways that the previous year's Batman (Warner, 1989) and that summer's big thing, the Warren Beatty Dick Tracy (Touchstone, 1990) was sold. "Now, crime has a new enemy, and justice has a new face."
CAST- Typical text pieces on cast and crew
A fun film with a very "comic book feel" to it. It's no wonder the Spider-Man films are a success....Raimi worked out his prototype nearly 15 years ago!
Anthony Conn, aka The Hong Kong Cavalier, 12/8/2004