Darkman is a product of its time: a late-’80s action movie full of over-the-top violence, corporate villains, a gruesome anti-hero, and a plot as thin as a razor blade.
Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist developing a synthetic skin capable of replicating facial features, unwittingly crosses the mob and is left for dead in a lab explosion. Now burned beyond recognition, Westlake uses his synthetic skin to infiltrate the gang that destroyed his life and get revenge.
Yeah, it’s sort of a mashup of Robocop, Phantom of the Opera, and The Shadow — but while it’s entertaining as a pulp revenge-fantasy, Darkman is notable as a sort of special episode of Before They Were Stars. The movie was directed by Sam Raimi, who would later apply what he learned from Darkman to his Spider-Man trilogy with much more successful results. While R-rated brutality didn’t make it into Spidey’s world (I can just picture Tobey Maguire pushing Ted Raimi’s head through a manhole into oncoming traffic), the director’s trademark montages and hyper-kinetic action scenes have some roots in Darkman.
Then there’s the actor behind Westlake’s impressive burn makeup — Oskar Schindler himself, Liam Neeson. He’s burdened with some pretty ham-fisted dialogue (“I’m everyone, and no one. Everywhere — and nowhere. Call me ... Darkman!”), but he brings gravitas to his otherwise silly role of scientist-turned-disfigured-superhero. Also present: Future Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as Westlake’s grieving girlfriend and Larry Drake as sadistic mob boss Robert Durant, who reprises his role in the aptly titled direct-to-video sequel, Darkman II: The Return of Durant.
Drake’s the only cast- or crewmember to return for the dreadful sequels that are packaged with the first film as The Darkman Trilogy. (Arnold Vosloo, aka The Mummy guy, replaces Neeson.) Both Durant and its hilariously subtitled follow-up, Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, aren’t worth the plastic they’re encoded on, but the whole trilogy costs about the same as a single new DVD ($11.99 on amazon.com), so it’s better to think of it as buying a cool movie that comes with two free Darkman coasters.