Friday, August 26, 2011

Completist Guide to the Darkman series (1990-1996) Part 1

Darkman (1990)

I remember being quite shocke
d when Sam Raimi got given the director's chair for Spider-man. At the time, I knew him only as the director of ridiculous over-the-top Evil Dead horror comedies. However viewing Darkman pulls everything into a bit of sharper perspective. Though not based on a comic book, Darkman's look and story pulls off a brilliant comic book atmostphere. Reportedly Sam Raimi wanted to direct a film version of pulp novel hero The Shadow but Universal couldn't get the rights, so instead he set about making his own original hero Darkman (who dresses pretty much exactly like The Shadow).

The plot sees Peyton Westlake a scientist who is trying to make synthetic skin for burn victims but struggling to come up with a formula that won't melt after 99 minutes. Westlake's girlfriend Julie accidentally takes a copy of letter implicating real estate tycoon Louis Strack illegal activities and leaves it in Peyton's lab. Strack sends crime boss Robert G Durant (Larry Drake) to retrieve the evidence, kill Westlake and blow up his lab for good measure. Westlake survives the explosion though, horribly scarred from head to toe and now has to repeatedly use his own formula to stay looking normal. Slightly mentally unstable he plans to kill Durant and all his men and get back with Julie. The fact that his skin formula can be moulded to give him almost anyone's face gives him a huge advantage as he sets about confusing Durant and his men into murdering each other.
Darkman is sort of the love child of Phantom of the Opera and Tim Burton's Batman. In fact the characteristically bombastic score by Danny Elfman covers a lot of the same ground as his Batman score. Luckily, this isn't too much of a detriment to the film. There's also a lot of similarities with Robocop with the whole disfigured hero returns 'from the dead' to avenge his own murder.

Liam Neeson is an interesting choice for the lead. He certainly has the cardigan wearing scientist look down but sort of seems out of his depth as a hero. As with all Sam Raimi films
over-acting is the order of the day, but here it makes a lot of sense. Peyton's disfigured face and body hide an equally disfigured mind and psyche. They say a hero is only as good as his villain and Larry Drake as Durant is a very memorable one. Imposing, sadistic and with a penchant for cutting off people's fingers, Durant makes for some great scenes not least when Peyton's puts on Durant's face and goes running around town causing mayhem and making Durant look like a complete ass.

As mentioned Raimi directs the film with such a buoyant flourish that you never stop to think how bleak it all is. It sort of helps the film be much more palatable than it has any right to be but it occasionally works against it. For example the heartbreaking way Peyton tries to re-engage with his girlfriend, never plucking up the courage to explain how he's so scarred underneath the fake skin, never really works. Still at least the fact Peyton worries over the murders he commits at least makes him a more interesting protagonist than Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

Overall, this is a great film and a nice transition film for Raimi from his early splatter films to his more dramatic fare.

Darkman II: The Return of Durant (1994)

Darkman II
is one of those films that requires a huge leap of faith. Remember that huge helicopter crash involving Robert G Durant, well he actually survived, albeit in a coma and with a small scar down his forehead. Okay, yeah it's a hokey retcon but being this film series is pretty much a comic book come to life we can't judge it too harshly.

Neeson goes and Arnold Vosloo (best known as titular
character in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns) comes in as Peyton Westlake – now with a thick South African accent. It's a bit of jarring recast if you watch this and the original back to back but judged on his own merits it's perfectly fine. The script drops much of dark twisted mentally unstable characteristics of Neeson's version in favour of making him just an out and out hero.

So the plot revolves around Durant, who wakes out
of his coma and sets out to do exactly what he did before, namely kill an innocent scientist in order to take over his riverside laboratory. This time he's not a sub villain but the main villian and rather than real estate his plan is to exploit gang warfare by introducing new laser weapons. Darkman meanwhile has relocated to an underground lab and is still trying to perfect his skin, stealing money from gang member to fuel his research. Inevitably, Darkman and Durant's paths cross and Darkman plans to finish him off for good.

This film's a lot of fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously, it doesn't tone down the violence, and it doesn't look too cheap. In fact, the director Bradford May, who also acted as cinematographer, does a great job, giving the film a great glossy, colourful look. As I said Vosloo does well as Peyton, he doesn't look a thing like Neeson but he's got some offbeat charisma. I think he must have got picked after he appeared in the Raimi-produced Hard Target, that came out the previous year. Another Raimi related actor/actress is Renee O'Connor (Gabrielle from TV's Xena) who plays a scientist's sister who works in a strip joint. Settle down though there's no nudity.
Using Durant as a villain does knock some points off this film. It's a double edged trade off. On the one hand it connects the film back to the earlier film and gives the sequel some continuity but at times it feels too much like a rehash. But having Durant torture and murder another scientist just feels really lazy. I mean does every warehouse at the river front contain nerdy scientists working on experimental projects.
Then again in Durant's favour no one can scream “Westlaaakeeee!!” as good as Larry Drake. He gets some great twisted scenes such as sending people off rooftops tied to golf carts. I'm going to cover the Darkman comics Marvel published in the early 90s later but the idea of reviving Durant was also played out there – in a much much different way. It's interesting to compare the two.

Darkman II
plays itself much more as a straight
forward comic book film. There's a little bit of quirk missing that Raimi brought to the original film. In the original, Darkman seemed genuinely quite mental unbalanced, as seen in the bit where he puts a tin funnel on his head and dances at his own reflection, whereas here he's more your classic brooding Batman-esque vigilante.

All in all,
Darkman II is a pretty good follow-up to the original but probably the least of the trilogy – only because it reused the same villain and has a lot of the same themes as the original film. It might be quite a good experiment if you're new to the series to watch this last.
NEXT TIME: Darkman III, the TV pilot, comics and more!