Home Video Hovel: Darkman, by David Bax
Labeling a film a “comic book movie” is a nebulous categorization. If that phrase refers to movies that are based on comic books, it encompasses everything from Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World to A History of Violence. Sam Raimi’s Darkman, now out on Blu-ray from Shout Factory and not based on any comic book source material at all, may actually be the closest cinema has ever come to actually feeling like a comic book. It has the adventure and origin story of a superhero comic (not to mention the grand sense of pathos, exaggerated to kabuki pitch) while also paying homage to the charmingly grotesque and harmlessly misanthropic Tales from the Crypt style of books. Those were themselves inspired by Universal’s visceral and proudly lowbrow monster movies of the 1930s, so the comic/cinema connection completes a full circle.
Liam Neeson plays scientist Peyton Westlake (remind me to use that pseudonym to check into hotels once I’m mega-famous), who is working on a synthetic skin to help burn victims. His girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), is a young attorney who happens to clap eyes on a piece of paper that incriminates her boss, a major developer. With Darkman, RoboCop, and Die Hard, it seems there were a few years in movies where a character gazing upon an intricate model of a building was a quick signifier that he or she was truly evil. Anyway, Julie’s boss (Colin Friels) sends a gangster in his employ named Durant (played with savor by Larry Drake) to get rid of the evidence, which happens to be at Westlake’s lab. Westlake is tortured, burned, blown up and thought dead by all. But while working to rebuild his face in secret, he also becomes a vigilante and attempts to win Julie back from the shadows.
Neeson’s recent career turn into schlocky action may feel like a departure for the guy who played Oskar Schindler but Darkman is proof that he has long had a talent for being great without being subtle. His brutality once he becomes Darkman is just as effective as his earnestness as Peyton. In juxtaposition, the two sides of the man allow for a surprising amount of melancholy in a movie so bright and bold. Drake is equal to the task in the villainous role. Rare is the actor who can chew the scenery with expressionlessness. And McDormand is winsome as the girlfriend. She makes you understand why Peyton loves her and wants to protect her while also making clear that she’s smart and capable enough to make her love in return worth earning.
Danny Elfman’s score is just as present – if not sometimes more so – than the actors themselves. Like Raimi’s camera, it swoops and spins around the action, always asserting itself but never failing to wrap you, the viewer, in its thrilling grasp. That camera, in its breathless freedom, is a clear precursor to what Raimi would do with his Spider-Man films.
The other thing – the most important thing – Raimi does with his frame is actually letting you to see into it. One of the things that makes comic books unique is that, even though it is a fourth-dimensional medium that usually tells a story, it allows for the possibility to stop and look at a panel for as long as you want. Darkman can’t quite do that but what it does instead is allow shots to linger. In watching the film, you’ll find that unlike many current action stories, the shot length is longer and the camera movements are slower in Darkman. Even when pushing in or panning or careening around, Raimi moves his apparatus with deliberation and crams each frame with points of interests (colors, angles, etc.). The end of each shot is like looking at a panel for a few seconds longer before being compelled to turn the page and find out what happens next.
Darkman is a blast and more than worth owning in the sumptuous Blu-ray format. Given that so many more recent superhero films place a premium on “grittiness” (and so few do it well), it’s refreshing to spend 90 minutes in a world that manages to make murder, disfigurement, avarice and separated lovers such a damned blast.
Special features include new interviews with Neeson, McDormand, Drake and many members of the crew; a commentary by cinematographer Bill Pope; and a making-of and interviews from the time of production.