Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Darkman is everyone — and no one

By Damian Arlyn
Although it may be hard for young people to imagine, there was a time when the name "Sam Raimi" did not arouse any excitement in movie lovers. Indeed there was a time when Sam Raimi was just another unknown, ambitious director trying desperately to carve out a place for himself in the world of cinema. Like a lot of filmmakers who made a name for themselves in the late '80s/early '90s — including Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers (with whom Raimi was friends) — he was an independent, but what he really wanted was to make mainstream "Hollywood" movies and with only three features under his belt (including the "no-budget" horror flick Evil Dead and its semi-sequel/remake), Raimi was given the opportunity to helm a major studio picture. The result was Darkman and it was released (unleashed?) 20 years ago today.

The genesis of Darkman lay in Raimi's troubles securing the rights to make a movie of The Shadow (something Russell Mulcahy would do with mixed results four years later) which eventually forced him to concoct a superhero of his own. While the imprint of Walter B. Gibson's famous crimefighter on Raimi's character is apparent, so too is the influence of classic monster movies: the "mad scientist-creation" of Frankenstein, the bloodlust of The Wolfman, the split-personality of Jekyll and Hyde, the bandaged visage of The Invisible Man and the scarred, ominous figure of The Phantom of the Opera to name just a few (It is very appropriate that Raimi's film bore the Universal logo). In fact, Darkman is just as much a horror film as it is a superhero movie. The story of a horribly disfigured innocent seeking revenge on the despicable criminals who made him so provided Raimi the chance to indulge not only in some spectacular action sequences but in some delightfully gruesome acts of violence.

I could talk about the hammy performances delivered by a group of game actors doing the best they can with the material (including a "pre-Oskar Schindler" Liam Neeson attempting some kind of American accent and wife to one-half of the team of Raimi's filmmaking friends, the Coen brothers, Frances McDormand, with whom presumably Raimi had some difficulty working), but the truth is that Darkman isn't really about the acting because it isn't really about its characters. Darkman is about its visuals and they are stunning. Raimi has always been a purely "cinematic" filmmaker and Darkman feels like the work of a child finally allowed to play with big toys. His unbridled passion and enthusiasm infuses (infects?) nearly every frame of the film. Classic "Hollywood-style" montages, extreme camera angles, outrageous special effects and an ostentatiously operatic music score provided by frequent Raimi-collaborator Danny Elfman (who, sadly, is currently estranged from the filmmaker) all testify to the fact that this is a movie made by a director who doesn't have a single subtle bone in his body. His two subsequent films (Army of Darkness and The Quick and the Dead, both of which I love for the exact same reason as I do Darkman) exhibit the same "no-holds-barred" approach to filmmaking. It wasn't until 1998's A Simple Plan that Raimi pushed himself as a storyteller and fashioned a moody, atmospheric thriller-drama that then allowed him to deal with more mature, complex themes in future films (such as the under-appreciated For Love of the Game and the creepy Gift). When the Spider-man series brought Raimi back to the comic book genre, he was able to create a far more "balanced" product than he had attempted to do more than a decade earlier (likewise with his return to horror on Drag Me to Hell).

Though reviews were mixed, Darkman was successful enough at the box office to spawn two direct-to-video sequels. I was 14 when it came out and remember very well the thrilling trailer, TV ads and movie poster tantalizingly declaring "Who is Darkman?" I missed seeing it in the theater but viewed it finally when it came to video. The violence disturbed me somewhat, but I loved the film nonetheless and even purchased the novelization. I caught it again once or twice in the following years but hadn't seen it in a very long time when I sat down to watch it again recently. I found my affection for the film had not waned in the slightest and, in fact, my appreciation for what Raimi was able to accomplish (given his relative lack of experience and the number of obstacles he reportedly had to overcome) only increased. However, much of the film not only seems incredibly silly but patently absurd to me now. The fact that lean, 6'4" Liam Neeson could possibly pass himself off as the 6-foot-tall, overweight minion Pauly just stretches credulity pass its limit. It occurred to me while watching Darkman that the film was made only three years after the similarly cartoonish and ultra-violent Robocop, but that the latter holds up much better today. Raimi's vision is perhaps not as dated as Verhoeven's (except in the area of special effects) but it is also not nearly as moving or intelligent.

The most important thing that Darkman provides for contemporary audiences is a chance to see a supremely talented and eminently creative artist at a crucial point in his career. Though still a little "wet behind the ears," Darkman displayed the enormous potential that Sam Raimi possessed. It was a potential that he would fulfill much later with projects that were just as visually sumptuous but which didn't sacrifice characterization and emotion in the process. Now, when his name is mentioned (as it has been in connection with the upcoming comic book-inspired action-thriller Priest), movie-lovers have good reason to get excited.

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Any movie of this sort ends up being as strong as its villain and it had a great one with Larry Drake (breaking far away from Benny on L.A. Law) as Durant. Also, I loved the army of one-legged gunmen whose second legs were arms, the idea of which was later stolen in later films. Ironically, that little ticking bird toy that sets off the explosion appeared in this week's episode of Mad Men, though no blast followed.
Yeah, this is unbridled goofy fun and it was great to see Raimi apply his Gonzo EVIL DEAD aesthetic to the comic book superhero genre. And what's crazy is that Raimi has said that the studio actually reined in his style? While the film is hardly perfect it is a lot of fun to watch and I actually prefer it to the first and third SPIDER-MAN films which feel like he was keeping himself in check, stylistically. At least, it seemed liked he was able to cut loose in the second SPIDEY film which is why it is generally regarded as the best of the series.
I agree about the Spidey films -- Spider-man 2 is by far the best.
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