A scientist is beaten up and left for dead inside his burning lab by gangsters. He survives, and doctors remove his ability to feel the constant pain he suffers. He then uses the synthetic skin he's been working on to cover his wounds, and seek revenge on those who killed him - but can he ever recover his life?
Long before he turned his exuberant methodology — a breezy, elastic style both in camerawork and storytelling — to the high-gloss of Spider-Man, Sam Raimi did a dry-run by inventing his own superhero for this offbeam comic book movie. It is unmistakably the work of Raimi, managing that strange commingling of the upbeat and superficial with a caustic, often bleak sense of humour. Darkman has a nasty, unwelcoming core, a biproduct of the shadowy story and nonchalant style. Hence, it is his least likable film, including the ranks of Evil Deads, but there’s no doubting the imagination on show.
The twitch of the idea, its yucky hook, is that Darkman’s shifting identities — he can construct any face to fit his own scorched mien, including his own — can only last for a couple of hours before disintegrating to reveal the mishmash beneath. The sources for this shifting anti-hero are obvious: Gaston Laroux’s Phantom Of The Opera, H.G. Well’s Invisible Man, Andre De Toth’s House Of Wax. Men who wear masks to hide themselves not to become things: an interesting reverse angle on standard superhero psychology.
Part of what makes Raimi’s execution of this keen idea so leaden, is miscasting. Liam Neeson, a strikingly tall man so good for noble idealists, doesn’t fit the form of a superhero, especially one as doubly messed up as this. You need a scene filling personality, a propensity for camp flourishes, to make this character work; Raimi’s alter-ego Bruce Campbell would have thrilled to the part. Frances McDormand too, although an excellent actress, doesn’t gel with the downtrodden girlfriend role, and despite putting in hard work as the attorney caught up with shady property dealers, she too seems adrift. The film offers little to root for working through the straightforward delivery of revenge.
The bad guys, inevitably, have more fun. Raimi’s exaggerated style allow snarly gangsters Colin Friels and a splendidly vindictive turn from Larry Drake as a finger collecting henchman, to cut loose. There is, though, little room allowed for morality, visually Raimi is playing it for all its worth: the swooping camera, the synthetic lighting, the splash of loud special effects. A grab-bag of giddy exaggeration, working hardest for laughs rather than thrills, this is the superhero genre executed as B-movie freakshow.
Certainly not Raimi at his best, but some knowing genre nods and an array of great effects make up much of the deficit.