Darkman ★★★★

Before directing the 2000's Spider-Man trilogy and influencing the look and feel of superhero films in a way that can still be felt today, Sam Raimi took his love of comic books and desire to personally bring that medium to the film world to create the stunning, energetic and entertaining enigma that is Darkman. Failing to snag the rights to the characters of "The Shadow" (which would see his own film in '94) and "Batman" (presumably before Tim Burton was confirmed to reinvent that franchise), Raimi developed his own character, first as a short story, then as a slightly-longer treatment that Universal Studios liked and agreed to fund. In spite of the extensive writing process that caused at least ten drafts to exist before a shooting script was finalized, as well as the disaster that was post-production (the original editor not following Raimi's notes and having a nervous breakdown before leaving), the film was pretty successful financially and eventually saw two direct-to-video sequels to continue its franchise (which I'll get to at some point). Though the film languishes in minor obscurity now, it's still more than worth it in seeing how an up-and-coming B-movie director can create a quality A-movie even without betraying anything he knows.

Peyton Westlake is a brilliant scientist working on a new type synthetic skin, a failing project due to it only lasting for 99 minutes in the light. Westlake is scarred physically and mentally, as a result of mobster and finger collector Robert Durant, and is forced to hide in shame as a result of his disfigured image. Taking a page from The Phantom of the Opera (among other 30's/40's Universal monster flicks Raimi uses as inspiration), Peyton enacts his ugly revenge as his mind lapses into psychopathy, angry and violent from the super-strength given as a side-effect of his experimental recovery, but with a heart and soul that yearns for his days as a normal man. Peyton shows shame and rage at the idea of him being a freak, as an outcast of society that lives in the darkness so those around him won't fear him more. The world that Peyton as Darkman is forced to live in is one of tragedy, having to endure the pain within his vigilante approach.

Within the realistic experience of a man forced to deal with the consequences of seeking vengeance, along with plenty of over-the-top details that remind you that this isn't exactly an arthouse take on a type of superhero (as well as makes it forgivable that, logistically speaking, Darkman shouldn't be able to have the same body structure as the people he disguises himself as but AHHHH whatever), Liam Neeson completely sells the idea of a monster on the brink of madness, a tortured leading man that uses his skills more for the art of ambush rather than brute force. His frightening charisma against the "City of the Future" that recalls RoboCop and its own take on the classic revenge story with an edge of absurdism that both share in differing ways, the world that Neeson as Darkman sees is sadistic, led by backstabbing snakes like Robert Durant and his henchman waiting for their comeuppance.

As a product of its time, Darkman's special effects, mostly its very liberal usage of green screen, have not aged well and come across as a minor nuisance it times. Ambitious billionaire and embezzler Louis Strack Jr. is also not terribly interesting as a character, though his final speech does deliver some poignancy in the difference between his civil crimes and Darkman's manic revenge (it also leads into a painfully distracting ADR line that Bruce Campbell had to do when Neeson was unavailable). All these aren't dealbreakers and are easy to forget with Raimi's style fully in-place, never afraid for some quick pans and zooms, as well as two moments of the world briefly cracking apart and flames appearing behind Darkman that is not only pure Raimi in trying to make his shots as rapid and extreme as possible while experimenting in how the camera becomes a part of the world, but also a unique visual way of showing Darkman's complete descent into madness that are both masterfully built-up to. Mix in with a couple of explosions, destroyed cars and helicopters, several times where parts of Westlake are on fire, and you have the perfect mid-point between the insanity of the Evil Dead masterpieces and the thrilling mainstream Spider-Man trilogy of films. A stellar first stab at the type of superhero genre Raimi would define, well done champ (now please come back to the directing chair, it's been 7 long years (unless you count the Ash vs Evil Dead pilot)).

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