Monday, March 3, 2014

DARKMAN (1990) Blu-ray review

Darkman (1990) d. Sam Raimi (USA)

Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, in his first leading role) is working diligently to uncover the secrets of a new synthetic skin, frustrated at his inability to stabilize it past the 98-minute mark. But when his girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) uncovers a corrupt businessman’s (Colin Friels) payoffs to government officials, the noble egghead lands in hot water (or more accurately, boiling acid) at the hands of hired thugs led by the sinister and ruthless Durant (Larry Drake). Awakening in a hospital burn ward, the presumed-dead Westlake escapes and resumes his work, hoping to restore his ruined visage, wreak vengeance on those responsible, and try to become human once again.

Like most horror fans, I came to Darkman wanting more from this Raimi guy, having experienced the high-energy splatstick treats of Evil Dead and its much-beloved 1987 sequel. However, sitting in the multiplex, my impression was that the movie didn’t know what it wanted to be, heightened performances and cartoony set-pieces resting uncomfortably within a fairly realistic action setting. I recognized the comic book sensibilities at work, but the final results felt juvenile and off-kilter, lacking any gravitas or depth even within the fantasy genre it inhabited. The dialogue was hokey, the acting false, and the tone erratic, though one had to admit it moved like a freight train and the climactic scenes of our heroic scientist-turned-monster clinging to a helicopter cable while zigzagging through a maze of skyscrapers was awesome in the extreme, especially when backed by Danny Elfman’s zingy score.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to recognize Raimi’s first studio feature as a natural evolutionary step from his bare-bones beginnings, a journey that would ultimately yield the high-powered visionary that brought Spider-Man to the screen with such verve and style in 2000. It’s also worth remembering that in the interim, the director learned better how to direct actors in subsequent efforts like The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, and For the Love of the Game.

Revisiting Darkman, one sees a young filmmaker eager to pour every wild, inner-12-year-old idea onto the screen, regardless of whether it serves the overall vision or not – it feels immature and joyously so, with cackling villains, damsels in distress, flawed heroes, and lots of crazy zooming camera angles and big bam boom action sequences. It’s akin to handing a kid a new paint set and watching every single color be used two and three times over, with Raimi attempting to write optical checks that technology (or Universal’s budget) couldn’t yet cash. Likewise, the emotional heft that he and his four (!) screenwriting collaborators try to conjure with these thin characters falls flat, a backyard melodrama with wooden swords played out on a souped-up jungle gym.

If it sounds like I’m overcriticizing, the intent is merely to provide context within which the film can best be enjoyed. Upon realizing that Raimi was indeed exorcising every nascent impulse and creating a comic book movie before there was such a subgenre (from whole cloth, no less, as opposed to a character with a preexisting mythos), it’s much easier to appreciate the accomplishment at hand. Accepting the immaturity on display and viewing the myriad camera set-ups as graphic novel panels, the zany mess takes on a slightly more developed framework.

But even at face value (get it?), one can have nothing but the highest respect for Tony Gardner’s elaborate makeup effects, transforming Neeson’s features into a mass of charred and broken flesh and bone, while the array of synthetic masks (which Westlake creates to impersonate his enemies) are great fun to watch collapse into hissing and bubbling puddles of goo. This was Gardner’s highest profile gig to date, following apprenticeships with Stan Winston and Rick Baker, and he is quick to praise Neeson’s enthusiasm for acting through the layers of latex and appliances during his supplementary interview on the new Shout! Factory Blu-ray.

Another coup for the S!F team is landing the big Irishman himself, gracious and humble as could be, for a short chat about working with Raimi and about what the film meant for his career. It’s clear that the monstrous side of the character appealed most, as Neeson gives over entirely to the savagery and demonic glee during the latter scenes, while his “human” moments feel more stiff and awkward. McDormand and Drake are also given time in front of the camera in featurettes of their own, both clearly thankful for the opportunity to break out of their respective on-screen ruts (McDormand as beleaguered southern women, Drake as gentle giant “Benny” character from L.A. Law). There are also vintage making-of on-set interviews with all three performers, as well as a fresh-faced Raimi.

Other supplementals include discussions with production designer Randy Ser and art director Philip Dagort with “Dark Design,” as they reveal magic tricks both elaborate and simple (the construction site visible from Friels’ character’s office window is actually a stitched-together drape of eight enlarged photographs of the L.A. skyline). “Henchman Tales” gives stalwart character actors Danny Hicks and Dan Bell time to reflect on their wacky villains and how Raimi would ask them to perform comic bits that seemed ridiculous at the time (Hicks’ hopping one-legged assassin, for example), but paid off in front of audiences.

The pièce de résistance is the Michael Felsher-moderated audio commentary with director of photography Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2 and 3, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), making his feature film debut after creating such historic music videos as Metallica’s “One” and Bangles “In Your Room.” Pope gleefully recounts how his director would constantly joke and take credit for cast and crew members’ ideas, as well as discussing the “Raimi Playbook,” where the shooter had broken down several signature moves and assigned them letter values. (Ex. Dolly push in = A, Dolly push with Dutch angle right = B, four-frame-per-second slow-mo acting = C, etc.) It makes for a very fun and energetic track, and viewers will gain new respect for many of the groundbreaking techniques on display.

Other extras include the original theatrical trailer (complete with its memorable “Who is Darkman?” marketing hook), TV spots, and several mouth-watering behind-the-scenes still galleries, all wrapped in Gary Pullin’s new retro-styled BR cover art.

While the film itself is a slippery beast, it’s definitely found its way into many fans’ hearts, and this latest Shout! Factory release is definitely worth the price to add to your collection. Unlike the ever-updating editions of The Evil Dead, this definitive version of Darkman is the last you’ll ever need to buy. Purchase now by clicking HERE.

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