Thursday, November 18, 2010

Darkman (1990)

The Movie: Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, later of some well known big budget films such as The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins) is a scientist who has discovered a way to create synthetic skin. The substance can recreate any face, thereby offering hope for burn victims. Unfortunately, it has one major flaw; it disintegrates after 99 minutes in the light.

But Peyton has much bigger problems. His girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), a lawyer, has come across an incriminating document. Peyton has the misfortune of being home when the sadistic gangster Robert Durant (Larry Drake) arrives with his thugs to collect it. Peyton is beaten and tortured by the gangsters before being left to die when his lab blows up. He survives, but winds up very badly burned.

Found, Peyton is taken to a hospital as a John Doe. The staff performs a radical procedure on him, effectively destroying his sense of touch. This leaves him with unchecked adrenalin levels, providing superhuman strength. It also amplifies his emotions to extreme levels.

Peyton escapes the hospital and sets up shop in a deserted warehouse. There, he salvages his lab and seeks to perfect the skin. He has two immediate uses for it, causing him to lead a double life. The first use is to try to repair things with Julie, who thought he was dead. Unfortunately, his unwillingness to let her know his true condition forces him to be very secretive and evasive with her.

The other use is to take revenge on Durant and his gang. Using the skin to disguise himself as the various members of the gang, Peyton sows fear and discord among them. Unfortunately, it becomes more and more difficult to control his impulses, and his two lives start to collide. Worst of all, Peyton Westlake starts to realize that he is turning into something every bit as evil and monstrous as the men who destroyed his life….

The Review:

He’s a cockroach; you think you kill him, he pops up someplace else.”
-Robert G. Durant

Darkman is a movie written and directed by Sam Raimi; known for the Evil Dead movies, as well as the recent Spiderman franchise. In many ways it is your typical low budget comic-book superhero movie; employing many of the familiar tropes of the genre. But what really makes it fascinating is the story itself; and the nature of its protagonist. Raimi cleverly inverts the usual tropes to bring us a story, not about a man who ascends to a higher calling; but a good man who becomes a monster.

Darkman makes it clear from the moment our protagonist starts seeking his revenge that Peyton Westlake is not a hero at all. In fact, he’s just the opposite. Admittedly he is somewhat sympathetic, I think we can all understand why he feels the way he does. Also, the men he is up against are definitely repulsive excuses for human beings; there’s no question that they are evil.

However, Peyton isn’t fighting them because it’s the right thing to do; he’s doing it entirely because he wants his pound of flesh. Also, it’s not just their appearance and voices he is mimicking; it’s their behaviors as well. More and more he uses their own strategies against them; notably in a scene where he leaves one of them in the exact situation they originally left him in, but with his own sadistic twist. What’s more, it’s clear that he takes every bit as much glee in their pain and suffering as they did in his. And most notably, with every act of revenge he takes another piece of the old, noble, Peyton Westlake dies.

By the time we reach the requisite showdown on a high place between Peyton and the mastermind behind the criminals (I won’t spoil his identity, but you will guess it long before the movie tells you); the villain’s inevitable cry of “who’s the real monster?” doesn’t come across as facetious as it might. After all, by this point the only real difference between the two is that Peyton is well aware of what he has become. The villain still thinks that his actions have merit because they work toward a greater good.

As a result, the scene where Peyton says his final goodbye to his girlfriend has a greater poignancy than it usually does in these movies. Peyton isn’t leaving because he has a higher cause to serve. Instead, he recognizes that he has become alienated from the rest of the human race; partly through his own actions. He is leaving not to pursue justice, but to go into self-imposed exile. Largely by his own hand, the good and noble Peyton Westlake is gone; leaving an inhuman monster in his place.

Liam Neesom is absolutely perfect for the role; which is good, since he’s the one who has to carry this movie. He perfectly portrays a sympathetic man who is slowly but surely becoming something repulsive. To my mind, one of his best touches is the voice he uses when he’s dealing with Julie after the accident. It sounds like his old voice, but there’s this subtle undertone that suggests there is something very wrong just below the surface.

In fact, my main issue with the two sequels is that they don’t have Neesom in the role. Admittedly, he was probably way too expensive by this point to do low-budget sequels. However, the man they substituted for him couldn’t have been more unsuited as Darkman. For one, he is stage-idol handsome. I’m not saying Neesom’s bad looking, but he better conveys the average Joe looks of Peyton Westlake. Worse, though, is his accent. It kept making me think James Bond, which is the exact polar opposite of the character.

The other standout performance in Darkman is Larry Drake as the villainous Durant. Now, I have seen Drake in a few very different roles; and he is a pretty amazing and diverse actor all around. As Peyton’s primary antagonist and foil, Drake is perfect. His Durant is extremely memorable; usually cool and collected, yet very sadistic and intense. In our first view of Durant he is being frisked by the gang of a rival gangster, and his only reaction is a subtle little eye-roll of annoyance. However, equally arresting is how he starts to fall apart once he begins to realize exactly who and what he’s up against. Drake is second only to Neeson as the very best thing about Darkman, and he’s also the very best part of the first sequel, where he reprises this role.

Darkman is obviously low budget, but they do very well with what they have. The fights and special effects are convincing enough, and Darkman works well on the level of an action movie. The standout scene is the big battle between Peyton and Durant; where Peyton hangs from the toe line of Durant’s helicopter for most of the time. I think they actually hung a stuntman from a helicopter for some of the shots.

Plotwise, the movie also works. There are a few required suspensions of disbelief, but that’s par for the course for this genre. Also, like most of Raimi’s movies, there is a subtle but distinctive sense of humor present.

Ultimately, Darkman works as a low budget but very well done superhero action flick. However, its main strength is in its script and the nature of the protagonist. The movie takes a look at the true nature of justice and revenge; a very appropriate message in the post-9/11 age when the former so often gets confused with the latter in the popular mindset. Using the superhero tropes we’re all familiar with; Raimi spins a cautionary tale about the price of that confusion. No matter how justified revenge might seem, it always has a price. In the character of Peyton Westlake, we are shown how the pursuit of vengeance, even seemingly justified vengeance, ultimately destroys and separates us from the very things that make us human.