Top positive review
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“I'm everyone - and no-one. Everywhere - nowhere. Call me... Darkman.”
on 19 June 2014
It’s perhaps fitting that Darkman was released in Universal’s 75th anniversary year since Sam Raimi’s film is a playful reworking of the studio’s mad scientist films of the 40s that throws in bits of the Mummy (the bandages) and the Phantom of the Opera (the cape and hat) into the hero’s unwanted makeover, with a bit of the Hulk’s anger management issues thrown into the mix. Liam Neeson’s the researcher working on synthetic skin (how Dr X would have approved) who finds himself needing the stuff when his lab is destroyed, his face disfigured and his nerves severed courtesy of self-congratulatory crooked property developer Colin Friels and gay gangster Larry Drake. The only problem is that his invention is highly unstable in daylight and only lasts 99 minutes and the surgery that kept him alive makes him prone to violent outburst when he doesn’t win pink elephants at fairgrounds. But it is particularly useful when he wants to sow confusion among his enemies and set them against each other…
The tone is somewhere between a real comic book feel and an old 40s movie serial with gothic horror overtones and the odd nod to Hitchcock, with fiendishly inventive and occasionally appropriately operatic direction. It keeps the violence just cartoonish enough for the outrageousness to feel entirely appropriate and the mix of sight gags and daring stunt work from jarring. And some of the stunt work is very impressive indeed - for my money the helicopter sequence is more impressive than anything in Raimi’s Spider-Man films because instead of CGi it’s very obviously a real person hanging hundreds of feet above the air and what seems like yards from a pursuing helicopter as they weave through skyscrapers and along the freeway. It’s let down by some poor optical compositing in some of the more vertiginous close-ups (you won’t believe for a moment it’s Neeson at the end of the rope even if his face wasn’t covered for much of the film), but even that gets a pass because of the film’s comic book styling. It also gives great montage courtesy of the legendary Pablo Ferro while there’s splendid finger-collecting villainy from Larry Drake, then best known for playing the mentally disabled janitor on L.A. Law but here excelling as a kind of stone-cold Edward G. Robinson who doesn’t revel in the killing but is very, very good at it. All this and an unbilled cameo from Jenny Agutter as a doctor too (“I give him a nine on the buzzard scale”) as well as a final shot appearance from someone very familiar from Sam Raimi’s other films. If anything, it’s probably more fun now than when it came out in 1990.
Shout Factory’s Region A-locked Blu-ray uses the same transfer that disappointed many as Universal’s barebones release, but it’s more a case of not being outstanding quality than being particularly poor, Universal’s usual DNR and edge enhancement antics not seeming quite so distracting in this particular visual landscape. To compensate, there’s a very impressive extras package, with Raimi’s understandable absence from new features (the shoot and argumentative post-production process with the studio were not a happy experience for him) countered by an excellent new interview with Larry Drake, new interviews with Neeson, Francis McDormand (who skirts around her well-publicised disagreements with Raimi throughout the shoot and includes a bizarre anecdote about Ken Loach and ‘fascist cars’ with automatic seatbelts), onscreen henchmen Dan Bell and Danny Hicks, makeup man Tony Gardner and production designer Randy Ser as well as an audio commentary by cinematographer Bill Pope. There’s also a very generous collection of original promotional material including surprisingly lengthy interviews with Raimi, Neeson, McDormand and Colin Friels that are more detailed than the usual EPK soundbites, original promotional featurette, 12 TV spots, trailer and stills, effects, storyboard and poster galleries. And thankfully the not very good new sleeve artwork commissioned for Shout’s release can be reversed for the superior original poster design.