Darkman (1990): Sam Raimi
Scientists experimenting on themselves should know that such experiments often end poorly. And yet they continue, pursuing their ideas to the limits of their feasibility.
Darkman is one such movie. It also has a guy’s face melt off a few times, and someone explode in a helicopter. Rad.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: After a lab explosion that nearly kills him, a scientist uses his skills to infiltrate a local mob crew and avenge his attack.
Peyton Darkman–no. I’m kidding. His name’s not Darkman. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist struggling to create synthetic skin. Alongside a partner who will be brutally murdered, Westlake has created this skin, which we get to watch in an early scene in Darkman. Problem is that the skin cells break down 99 minutes after creation.
Westlake describes his problems to his girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand), but she’s got problems of her own. Turns out her boss at the local development firm might be a crook, and she has a document to prove it.
In a rare plot point, it’s the villain’s move against a supporting character that turns the lead character into the hero. Crime lord Robert Durant (Larry Drake) breaks into Westlake’s lab searching for the incriminating memo. Durant tortures Westlake by splashing his face and hands in boiling liquid and murdering his partner. He finds the memo, and also chooses to kill Westlake in a horrific explosion that sends Westlake flying from his second-story lab into the river across the street.
Though his girlfriend believes he’s dead, Westlake washes up downriver and finds himself in a hospital’s burn ward. A helpful nurse explains the physical and emotional changes Westlake will endure as he’s strapped to a wheel constantly spinning him to help his blood flow.
To ease the pain of the burned hands and face, the docs cut nerves. The nurse explains that now Westlake cannot feel pain there, but the operation will amplify his anger and rage, especially. Why is it always rage that’s amplified?
Most of Darkman shows Liam Neeson acting like a buffoon. With cartoonish glee he pulverizes those connected to Durant in an effort to avenge himself. Poor Westlake also tries to reconnect with his girlfriend. All of this comes after he re-establishes a lab in a condemned industrial plant.
Several key scenes show Westlake’s transformation into Darkman, a man wrapped in decaying rags, wearing a blue trench coat, and sometimes a fancy hat. Why can’t the presumed-dead skinless not wear fancy hats? What say you? Also key is Westlake’s old face, made of the 99-minute skin cells that melt when in the light for too long.
Westlake is full of rage, but he’s smart enough to use his scientific breakthrough to achieve vengeance. He spies upon and infiltrates Durant’s gang, using their faces as disguises to steal money and sew discord among them. It’s an effective tactic, though he’s constantly bumping against the 99-minute limit.
In one moment he comes face to face with the real Durant after trying to extort a fellow crime lord. Westlake is able to flee this situation, but he can’t avoid having his face melt off.
An attempt to rekindle his relationship goes haywire as well. The pair walk the boardwalk, where Westlake plays a carnival game. He throws a baseball against three stack bottles and, to everyone’s surprise, knocks them down. Only rage-enhanced monsters have the strength for that. Well, the carnie doesn’t allow victory, claiming Westlake was over the line. Westlake wants that stuffed elephant for his beloved, and his anger is increasing. When the carnie pokes him in the chest, Westlake snaps those two fingers in a gruesome closeup. He runs away from the scene, but Julie, to her credit, won’t give up on him.
Neeson is purposefully over the top as Darkman, and that’s OK. Decades before playing the pseudo-serious Brain Mills, of whom things are taken from, Neeson is a goober action hero made mostly by Sam Raimi’s vision. Here’s a throwback to the early days of heroes, when they weren’t quite super.
Durant is one of the most brutal crime bosses you’ll meet. His daring and brutality in the opening attack on a rival crime boss shows you everything you need to know. He stands in the center of fire, calmly killing drivers with his pistol, and he likes fingers.
Durant eagerly kills most of the people he meets not in his crew. His choice of trophy is index finger, chopped at the knuckled using the same guillotine-style cutting tool he uses for his gigantic cigars. He keeps the fingers, jewelry and all, in a box in his home.
Durant works for the real estate developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels), though we don’t learn this for some time. Strack gives the orders and is the final bad guy Darkman must conquer, but Durant has much more screen time so he gets top billing here.
Durant’s crew is as crazy and bloodthirsty as he is. They listen to their leader though, and are afraid of his tactics. Westlake imitates Durant around the middle of the movie, when he holds up a store wearing Durant’s face. While the real crime boss is under arrest, the fake one heads to Chinatown to collect on a debt. The real Durant quickly gets out of jail and learns of the Chinatown happenings, and he’s forced to take a cab there.
The two Durants meet, and the real one is only momentarily phased by looking at himself. He quickly recovers and orders his doppelgänger shot at. He shoots at Darkman in the middle of Chinatown in broad daylight, so angry that he cares little for loss of innocent life nor that he was released from custody minutes before.
Brutality is the best trait to define Durant, perhaps the only one. If cutting off fingers isn’t enough proof, how about what he does to his friends? Durant believes his crew are turning on him (thanks to Darkman’s efforts). One guy he throws out of a hotel window. Riding in a helicopter chasing Darkman, Durant shoots the police helicopter ordering them down. That’s bold. Killing cops is hard to overlook, even for corrupt cops likely in Durant’s pocket.
Durant says it best about himself in the early going. He tries not to let anger get the better of him, but he doesn’t always succeed.
Durant is the first main character to appear in Darkman, on his way to meet with another local crime lord at the latter’s warehouse. It’s unusual for the first face and speaker in a movie to be killed minutes later, but that’s what happens when Durant gets involved with you.
Durant and his crew are searched and disarmed of copious weapons of various calibers and brass. They arrive in the warehouse surrounded, far outgunned and outmanned. It’s no problem for Durant. He’s got an ace up his sleeve.
Or, rather, up a pant leg. One of Durant’s goons pulls off the fake leg supporting another colleague. That fake leg houses a killer app: a fully automatic. The guy proceeds to joyously kill half a dozen of his enemies before anyone else fires a shot.
In fact, the main gangster has to order his men to shoot back before they do, and by then several of his men are dead.
No worries though, because two cars burst from shipping containers with gunmen inside. They were waiting there the whole time, I guess? How often are these men waiting inside cars inside containers? Any amount of time seems too long.
Durant is not flustered. He draws a handgun and takes careful aim at one of the drivers, and shoots him dead. He aims at another and shoots him dead as well.
Cars are almost literally flying across the warehouse floor, such is the chaos and detritus filling the space. If any of Durant’s men have been shot we don’t know.
After Durant kills the second guy the fight is over. Mr. Fake Leg hops toward Durant along with two others, the only survivors of the fight beside the original, fight-picking gangster.
Durant coolly draws out his cigar cutter and chops himself a fat stogie. He offers counterpoints to the gangsters message about backing off his territory. One, he tries not to let his anger control him. This point he makes while using the cigar cutter to lop off his opposition’s index finger.
Two, sometimes that anger gets the best of him. Another finger gone. Three, he has seven more points. There goes a third finger. And, we presume, on and on.
Darkman has more action than one might expect for a 90-minute tale about a hideous man who skulks in the shadows. There’s plenty of gunfire, a helicopter flight and fight, and some death-defying heights.
The movie’s real star is the makeup. When a guy has his face melted and reconstituted, you know the makeup will be the movie’s key factor, and it is here.
Westlake’s face appears to undergo several layers of change, settling on a half-white, half-tendon feature at movie’s end. It’s a disgusting, effective look that they pulled off in the real world. Let’s compare Darkman’s face……to another famous two-toned face, Two Face from The Dark Knight.
Gross, in both cases, but Aaron Eckhart’s face was clearly the lesser face.
Julie is Westlake’s loving girlfriend, and she’d like to keep it that way. Westlake proposes to her early, but she needs time to think about it. She’s struggling with knowledge that her boss, Strack, might be a criminal, thanks to an old memo she found.
Turns out she was right, and when she asks Strack about it he gives her a solid speech about how he’s trying to rebuild the city, rescue it from blight and decay, blah blah blah. Julie buys the argument and agrees to keep mum about the nefarious activity.
Not too long after this meeting she watches her boyfriend’s lab explode close enough to feel the blast’s heat. She doesn’t know yet that her memo, left at his lab, was the cause of this attack. She knows only that her boyfriend is dead.
So when Westlake visits her months later at his own grave, she’s a little upset. Credit to Julie though, she recovers quickly, and enough to date him again. They try to rekindle their relationship, but Westlake’s rage comes through after the stuffed elephant incident.
Julie wants to help Westlake, even after watching him break the carnie’s fingers and also seeing his Phantom of the Opera facial scarring. She follows him to his makeshift lab and tries to make right, but it’s Durant who ruins their reunion. Julie devolves to damsel in distress status, but she’s got enough depth to her in this short movie to make her interesting.
Strack is Durant’s boss and the mastermind of whatever huge development he’s building in the unnamed city that resembles Los Angeles in many ways but is not.
It seems as if Strack actually wants to rebuild a blighted part of the city. He calls his development “all mine” during the climax, but there’s no hint of planned corruption after building it. All the bad stuff is on the planning end, which, presumably, includes killing the competition.
Strack believes himself powerful enough to both date Westlake’s girlfriend and convince Darkman to join him. He can’t really believe it’ll work, but you know he does.
Late in the movie, when Julie follows Westlake to his lair, Durant’s men follows her, attack Darkman, and kidnap Julie. This is getting more Phantom of the Opera all the time. But does Phantom have a helicopter? It does not.
Durant has one, and he uses it to menace Darkman, shooting at him across the rooftops. After Darkman dispatches some goons inside the abandoned factory, he returns to the roof to attack Durant. Darkman surprises the villain by attacking one of his henchmen while hanging onto the skid of the helicopter as it’s taking off. Darkman absorbs some blows from this man before throwing him off.
Durant delivers kick after kick to Darkman’s face, but he doesn’t feel pain in his head anymore, remember? Still, the force is enough to loosen Darkman’s grip. He falls but catches a winch dangling from the chopper.
With the helicopter in the air, now’s a safe time for Darkman’s lab to explode, and it does, killing the surviving goons in the same manner in which they tried to kill him months ago. “You’re next, Durant,” Darkman chuckles.
The helicopter banks and weaves through the city. Big visuals of the perilous flight among the tall buildings of the unnamed city. Nothing shakes Darkman though, not even smashing into a glass tower.
A police helicopter joins the fray through the city and tries to convince Durant to land. The crime lord responds first by shooting the chopper with bullets and then blasting it to bits with a grenade launcher.
Durant’s chopper descends to road level. Darkman barely dodges oncoming traffic, including running along a truck roof. Durant fires grenades below, blowing parts of a bridge and several cars on it. This guy is clearly desperate to be willing to grenade innocent citizens in daylight and a police chopper. Is he untouchable?
No, and here’s proof that karma is real. Darkman stands on a moving truck and runs the winch to the front, hooking it on a metal outcrop of the truck. The 18-wheeler is too heavy for the helicopter to lift, and that’s too bad because it’s about to crash into a tunnel. When it does and explodes, Darkman tells Durant, “Kiss your ass goodbye.”
Having dispatched the real Durant, who is busy kissing his ass goodbye in a tunnel, Darkman uses his face technology to impersonate the criminal once more, to rescue his girlfriend from the clutches of the true villain: Strack.
Strack, a henchman guarding a handcuffed Julie, and Darkman-as-Durant ascend 60+ stories of an unfinished skyscraper in Strack’s development. They get out and walk across the steel beams. Strack grew up working in such places alongside his father. He’s having a grand time tormenting disguised Darkman, asking him about his kids, watching Darkman-as-Durant struggle on the narrow beams in the wind.
Strack reveals that Durant doesn’t have kids. Dude was playing the whole time! Truth is, Strack brought Darkman up there to ask him to join him. There’s a major Vader/Luke vibe going on here.
Darkman answers the call by leaping onto Strack and knocking both several floors down, where they smash onto metal flashing. The fight is on. Julie fends off the henchman but falls several floors as well. She should have died, but her handcuffs slip onto exposed rebar. Such a fall would snap her wrists were this not a movie. Darkman shouts a good “Julieeeee!”
Strack leaps up and punches Darkman. He’s a good fighter: quick hands and quick feet. He smiles with each strike. He starts shoving winches at Darkman, confusing him, and finds an industrial bolt gun to shoot at him.
Strack loves toying with Darkman. He shoots the bolts to either side, until he fires one into Darkman’s hand and into a steel beam. Ouch. But not for Darkman. Strack calls him “Burn Head,” which probably hurts more.
Strack tells Darkman about his time with Julie, when she thought Westlake was dead. “She doesn’t date freaks,” he says, a slur that triggers Darkman’s rage. He rips his bolted hand from the beam and punches Strack, but suddenly Julie is slipping. Darkman Tarzan swings to save her, then swings back to attack Strack.
Here’s where Strack loses the fight. He still has that bolt gun, and he’s firing and missing the tall-ass Darkman as he’s swinging in a direct straight line toward him. Darkman kicks Strack over the edge, but he catches his leg. Will he let him go? Strack begs for it, Joker-like, telling him he won’t do it. He couldn’t live with the guilt.
Darkman looks as if he won’t drop his nemesis. Until he does. “I’m learning to live with a lot of things.” Damn straight.
Darkman and Julie descend the tower. She’s still ready to rekindle to their relationship, but Darkman has other plans. Peyton’s gone, he says, and he has a new disguise. He dons the mask of an unknown person and disappears among the crowds, because it’s the morning now despite the fight occurring at night.
Julie fights to find the Peyton she recognizes. She won’t find him, but the camera does. He’s…Bruce Campbell!
Here’s a joke told: I was engaged to a girl once with a wooden leg. What happened? I had to break it off.
Clap. Clap. Clap. Good one. You also have to smile at the scene in which Westlake wins Julie a stuffed elephant. He’s getting angrier and she’s getting more frightened, so she won’t take the elephant, which makes him angrier. “Take the fucking elephant,” he finally shouts.
Liam Neeson is a fine actor, but he’s gangly, and that makes everything he does a little, tiny bit funny. Jimmy Stewart had the same problem.
Darkman is plenty campy, and it’s why the movie works, especially with its run time. You can see MANY similarities to Raimi’s next superhero jaunt, the mega-hit Spider-Man.
Darkman is clearly shot in Los Angeles but the city is unnamed. The helicopter chase occurs above much of downtown, where you can see the US Bank tower, Los Angeles’s highest building in many shots. A Michigan license plate is prominent in an early shot, but that’s probably an accident.
Say, we never learned why the synthetic skin cells deteriorate after 99 minutes in light, did we? No. What a scam!
Good job keeping it clean, Darkman.
- When are carnies not inducing rage?
Summary (31/68): 46%
Darkman is maybe the best character-driven movie in which the protagonist’s face melts off several times. That’s a compliment. There’s enough script to pack depth to these characters, one whose face we don’t see half the time. It’s easy to forget what Liam Neeson looks like when half his face is missing. Also, throw in a two-time Oscar winner in McDormand and you’ve got a solid cast here.
It’s easy to see why Raimi got the Spider-Man gig and jump started the comic revolution running Hollywood for nearly two decades. Here’s a movie about adults with adult problems, but it’s still silly, tongue-in-cheek.