Darkman (1990): Breakdown by Kooshmeister
A scientist who invents a “liquid skin” for burn victims is himself badly burned by a sadistic mobster and his gang, and subsequently becomes a vigilante to get revenge as per tradition.
Darkman starts off with a bang. Within only a couple of minutes there’s a huge shootout in a dockside warehouse with car crashes and everything. This sequence has almost no connection to the main story, serving only to introduce the bad guys. Shortly after this we meet our soon-to-be-hero, a meek scientist, who is subsequently beaten and tortured, forced to watch his friend and colleague murdered in front of them, and then is left to die in his own lab which has been rigged to explode. He survives, badly burned, and seeks vengeance.
Then the story just sort of winds down. It probably only seems slow due to the frantic pacing of more modern films (action and otherwise), but still, it’s just slow. This is forgivable however as it gives director Sam Raimi time to develop the characters, but it winds up making Darkman’s various attacks against his former tormentors seem kind of ho-hum. Not until the true villain of the piece is revealed does it kick back into high gear and after that we get explosions, gunfire, fistfights, helicopters, and a final showdown that makes the movie truly memorable.
This slow buildup allows for the two ending setpieces (the helicopter chase and the fistfight on the building) to really stand out as something special so this is one time I applaud an action film’s relatively slow and uninteresting second act.
I can’t discuss the movie’s execution without also discussing director Raimi’s odd sense of humor. The subject matter here is quite grim, obviously, with the torture, burning and whatnot, and Raimi brings to Darkman the same sort of wonky black humor he did to the Evil Dead movies. Whether this works or not is entirely up to the individual viewer.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Liam Neeson is Dr. Peyton Westlake, a.k.a. Darkman
Our main hero begins the proceedings as a sort of nebbish. An all-around decent guy beyond the usual “has a nice girlfriend” stuff. As a scientist he strives for the betterment of mankind and his attempts to create artificial skin for burn victims mark him as a guy with a particular axe to grind. He clearly wants to help people who have a physical abnormality which causes social stigma, making it tragic that he ought to befall the very fate of his patients.
But aside from being a basic, decent fellow, Dr. Westlake is boring. It’s a shame he needs to be tortured brutally, beaten up and set on fire to become interesting, but it’s true. And once he becomes Darkman the film really gets interesting. Apparently having almost 90% of your skin burned off hurts really, really bad, so, to relieve Westlake’s pain, the ER doctors performed some made-up emergency surgery that severs his nerve endings. The downside is he can’t feel any sense of touch whatsoever anymore. More bullshit scientific gobbledygook establishes that this makes his brain “hungry” for sensory input and for some reason Westlake’s brain looked at the Emotional McDonald’s menu and chose the all-you-can-scream rage buffet, with a side dish of super-strength as a result of an increased adrenaline level.
I’m uncertain how simply increasing someone’s adrenaline makes them capable of bending metal bars or picking up a full grown person and flinging them one-handed, but then I’m not a doctor performing experimental brain surgery on burn victims. All you need to know is that as Darkman, Westlake is crispy, emotionally disturbed, pissed off to levels that would make David Banner whimper, and strong as hell. And he can’t feel pain. Combine this with his retained scientific intelligence and his ability to make masks of pretty much anyone, and you have yourself one severely dangerous vigilante hero.
I won’t go into how he can talk without lips, or mimic the voices of his intended victims, or take on their exact size and build upon donning the masks of them. Let’s just leave Darkman as he is and move on. I don’t want to make him angry.
Frances McDormand is Julie Hastings
Dr. Westlake’s girlfriend. She isn’t really action-y but I wanted to discuss her anyway. Although she means well, Julie isn’t the sharpest knife in the toolshed despite a college education and law degree. For starters, her boyfriend’s entire plight is her fault. See, the reason the bad guys trashed lab is because they were looking for a top-secret document which Julie left there without telling him. So when the goon squad comes busting down Westlake’s door demanding this paper, he has no idea what they’re talking about. After this, Julie assumes her boytoy is dead meat (delicious, KFC fried meat!) and immediately begins dating Strack, which brings us to the number two reason why she’s a dunderhead.
Specifically, the document the goons were after was one proving Strack had bribed public officials. Julie never even entertains the notion that Strack might have sent the people that torched her boyfriend (and he was the one she told where it was!), and has the temerity to look shocked when Strack later openly admits he did. At least she dumps his ass after this. She then immediately develops a severe case of The Stupids and goes to visit Darkman, nary a thought in her pretty little head that Strack might have her followed. Surprise! He did, and she’s nabbed and taken prisoner.
During the final showdown between hero and villain, Julie shows some minor promise when she almost shoves the goon guarding her to his death while he attempts to snipe Darkman, only to not quite succeed. After this, the goon shoves her off the ledge and she just sort of hangs around waiting to be rescued.
And I can’t discuss Julie without discussing the ending of the film. After Darkman (spoiler!) drops Strack off the building to a much-deserved destiny with the sidewalk, our two lovebirds attempt to reconcile. Finally getting his full revenge has left Darky feeling empty and angry with himself. He concludes he is now just as ugly inside as he is outside, and that Julie doesn’t deserve him, and runs off into the night. The problem is, after his heroics moments earlier, Julie was totally hot for Darkman and willing to marry him, face or no face. That’s one seriously dedicated girlfriend (her using the freaking villain as a rebound notwithstanding). Also, him just deciding he’s too ugly and scary for her completely leaves Julie out of the decision-making process, so that makes him a jerk.
Guys, if you get your face burned off and go on an insane, rage-fueld rampage of death and destruction, and your girlfriend still wants to do the horizontal mambo… marry her. She’s a keeper.
Colins Friels is Louis Strack, Jr.
Strack here starts the movie as a slightly crooked but nonetheless trustyworthy businessman… in theory. Also in theory, the big twist is that he’s actually the evil mastermind behind everything. Only it doesn’t work. Strack is a sleazy creep from the moment he appears that when he openly declares his evilness, it’s no shock at all. He may as well have a sign stuck on his back reading “I’m The Bad Guy.” But getting beyond that, he’s pretty effective once his main villain status is cemented. He can order mob bosses around like nobody’s business, and his motivation, to build things (he’s in real estate and construction) is a refreshing break from all those villains who want money or to conquer the world. Strack’s goal is simple: build stuff. He’s just willing to commit murder, bribe public officials and hire out criminals to attain that.
Larry Drake is Robert G. Durant
Strack may be the main villain but Durant here holds the floor for much of the film. Although he’s reduced to just a henchman once they reveal Strack’s true nature, for the first two acts Robby G. is a powerhouse sadistic psycho and exactly the kind of thug you want to wipe out rivals and intimidate people. He’s surprisingly urbane and soft-spoken (well-spoken too; he likes using lots of big words), even a bit effeminate, close to a being a crooked businessman stereotype himself. But then get chops people’s fingers off and orders around legions of suit-wearing goons and it becomes plain he’s a die-hard mobster. He gets all the good villain lines and whether he’s seeming to run the show or cowtowing to a construction tycoon with delusions of grandeur, Durant is nonetheless one scary bastard. The world can sleep better knowing he becomes one with a highway overpass (the sequel notwithstanding).
[The Body Count = 39, give or take a few]
Darkman himself is directly responsible only for the deaths of 6 people. By contrast it is Durant and his gang member Smiley who do the most killing, racking up a total of 18 kills between the two of them, with 9 apiece.
[Most Satisfying Death]
I wanna say all of the bad guys but one in particular stands out. Rick, the guy who shot and killed Westlake’s friend when they broke into his house. Rick is played by Sam Raimi’s brother Ted Raimi, incidentally. Anyway, Rick’s face is burned into Darkman’s memory and so he singles him out especially and drags his ass down into a sewer where he pesters him for info about Durant’s gang and Rick gives everything up. Leading to this exchange:
Rick: I told you everything!
Darkman: I know, Rick, I know you did. But let’s pretend you didn’t!
He proceeds to stick Rick up through the open manhole and into rush hour traffic where the luckless henchman has his head crushed like a grape by a speeding semi. While shrieking like a little girl.
[Best Fight Scene]
Bar none, the climax. Strack and a goon take the captured Julie to the top of a half-finished skyscraper Strack’s company is building to wait for Darkman to come to them. Here, they’re met by a banged-up Durant. But this is actually Darkman in disguise because Durant died earlier, and Strack quickly unmasks him and the fight is on!
For a suit who spends most of his time in his office, Strack proves he is worthy as the main villain by being capable of beating the tar out of Darkman despite our hero’s enhanced physical strength, his viciousness catching Darkman off guard entirely. Darky does eventually turn the fight around, though, ’cause he’s the good guy. The fight makes full use of the construction site environment. The participants awkwardly jump from girder to girder, struggling for balance, and Strack and his goon swing chains at Darkman in a dizzying display. Strack even grabs a gigantic rivet gun to use on our faceless hero! This fight scene is well worth watching the movie just for the setting alone.
[DudeSweat and Machismo]
There’s some talk among fans that Durant is apparently gay but I just don’t see it, personally. And I’m a gay man, myself.
[Exploitation and Misogyny]
None really. Strack is a creepy bastard and in one scene smells Julie’s hair.
Also, of course, Julie is tied up and gagged in the climax. After she fails to push Strack’s goon to his death, he pushes back, calling her a bitch.
[Epic Moment and Best One-Liner]
In-between killing mobsters, Darkman takes a break from his revenge spree to try and reconnect with Julie. He makes a mask of his old (Westlake) face, and just sort of shows up and takes her to a carnival where the two frolic and the happy couple can forget their worries for a while. Westlake vows to win Julie a stuffed elephant from a game where you knock bottles over with baseballs. Although Westlake wins, the carnie running the game refuses to give him his prize and is rude as hell about it.
Westlake politely but firmly insists he be given the elephant. The carnie refuses and tells him to beat it. We watch as Westlake’s temper slowly builds to a boiling point, the combination of his frustration with the carnie’s rudeness and the downright disturbing circus environment (the music used in this scene is called, on the soundtrack, “Carnival from Hell”) slowly driving him to lose that terrible temper we discussed earlier.
Then the carnie commits the unpardonable sin of poking him. This causes hellfire to explode behind Westlake (for dramatic effect only; he doesn’t actually become Ghost Rider or cause a nuclear explosion or anything) and he proceeds to make extreme amounts of rage face and grab the carnie’s fingers and bend them backwards until they break.
The carnie screams, so does Westlake, and so does Julie, and then Westlake throws the guy through the wall of the game shanty and grabs one of the plush elephants and attempts to give it to his thoroughly horrified girlfriend, screaming, “TAKE THE FUCKING ELEPHANT!”
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Never piss off scientists who can look like anyone by poking them and for God’s sake, take the fucking elephant!
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
[ ] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[X] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[ ] Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[X] Giant Explosion(s)
[ ] Heavy Artillery
[X] Improvised Weapon(s)
[ ] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[X] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s) [LOL at bandages!]
[ ] Manly Embrace(s)
[ ] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[ ] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[ ] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[ ] Stupid Authoritative Figure(s)
[ ] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[X] Torture Sequence(s)
[X] Unnecessary Sequel* [Darkman II]
[X] Vehicle Chase(s)
[X] Vigilante Justice
[TOTAL: 13 outta 25]
*I wouldn’t call the sequels “unnecessary,” due to the concept being ripe for good action stories, but due to the dramatic drop in quality they fit the bill anyway.