There seems to be an unfortunate trend when it comes to critics and Liam Neeson these days. Some seem to claim that he’s resting on his laurels. That he’s given up on doing serious films in favour of dumber, explod-ier popcorn films like Battleship and Clash of the Titans as a way of getting an easy paycheck with less effort. Ignoring the vast number of counter-arguments which can be made to this it ought to be pointed out that this isn’t some sudden turn in his career. For every Schindler’s List he’s appeared in a Krull, and while they have more explosions not all of them are necessarily outright dumb or have Neeson putting in less effort. Case and point: Darkman.
This film is, to put it simply, Batman as done by Sam Raimi. No really, he did it when he couldn’t get his rights to that franchise, and you can draw quite a few parallels between the two – Both protagonists are driven by traumatic events, have effectively no superpowers, use science and gadgets to defeat their enemies and are geniuses in their own right. This isn’t to say one is a carbon copy of the other, simply that you can see the parallels between the two. In fact it’s closer to Phantom of the Opera than it is any traditional superhero film. That or Batman where hobo scientist Two-Face is the hero.
The film follows the scientist Peyton Westlake (Neeson) as he attempts to take revenge upon a criminal cartel which physically disfigured him and killed his assistant in order to steal a revolutionary new synthetic skin he created. Officially dead, he unknowingly undergoes a number of medical experiments while comatose which severs his pain receptors. This allows him to operate despite his disfigurements, and gives him adrenal overload, but leaves him unable to physically feel objects. Having lost effectively everything he begins to plan his retribution, using his creation to disguise himself as his enemies.
If you’ve not guessed it from that, this isn’t the most realistic of films. Even ignoring aspects of the synthetic skin core to the plot, such as its photo-sensitivity, Westlake survives an almost hilarious level of physical trauma. You also wonder how he can keep a high tech lab hidden and functional when effectively being homeless and the traditional Raimi-campness creeps in once in a while. Yet despite that the script still delivers thanks to its action set pieces, high quality of acting and above all else its character progression.
When Westlake begins his efforts to take revenge, you’re rooting for him until it becomes extremely obvious that he’s become potentially an even bigger monster than those he hunts. The only difference between Darkman and the criminal mob is that one is a monster completely focused upon killing those who wronged him, while the others are killing for personal power. This might sound somewhat generic, like a 90s anti-hero cliché, but the film handles it with care and turns it into something truly worthwhile.
Focusing entirely upon what Westlake has lost before slowly moving towards showing how he has become unhinged. One of the best scenes which represents this first point is where he realizes he has lost all sense of feeling, which is uncomfortably harrowing and Liam Neeson’s performance conveys a serious sense of emotional pain with very little dialogue. He’s still sympathetic at this point but you can clearly see insanity beginning to creep in upon learning this, especially after all he’s already been through.
While aspects like the action scenes and effects are usually what the film is best remembered for, it’s a real credit to Neeson’s acting ability that he was able to convey such emotion. As he is near constantly covered by prosthetics and bandages, it’s astounding to see that he manages to maintain such a performance throughout the film. You’d have a hard time picking out any serious dips in his acting quality when comparing the scenes where he is allowed to show his face and where he’s bandaged up. It’s this which really helps to elevate the film in many respects as he comes across as being very human yet at the same time both very powerful and monstrous. Even if you’ve seen Neeson enough times to recognize him as an actor rather than character in his films, more often than not you’re going to see Westlake rather than the actor playing him.
Compare this with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Think of how you saw the Joker in that – In spite of it visibly being Heath Ledger beneath the scars and makeup you never really think of him as anything other than the Joker. It’s that small bonus which helps to elevate a film which would have been great without it to new heights.
Even ignoring the journey Westlake undergoes, though considering this is effectively a character study why would you, the action scenes have withstood the tests of time quite well. They often have the problem of putting characters in front of blindingly obvious screened backgrounds, such as when Westlake is riding atop a train but the stunts tend to make up for it. One specific scene which comes to mind is a freeway battle which has an astounding amount of pyrotechnics considering the film’s relatively slim budget.
Now Darkman isn’t without its flaws. While seeing them fall was immensely satisfying the villains felt occasionally underwhelming and not quite what you’d expect for a film of this genre. They need slightly more flavour to them in order to stand out or a much more singularly identifiable villain. The aforementioned problems with explosive backgrounds come up far too many times to simply be ignored and there were times when Westlake’s savage outbursts felt overly forced by the plot. These also tend to overshadow his attempts to rebuild his life and restart his relationship with his girlfriend Julie Hastings, feeling heavy handed even by this film’s standards. Yet at the same time these are trademark problems which frequently reoccur within Sam Raimi’s productions and they never manage to ruin the experience of watching this for the first time.
For a genre which has had a serious resurgence over the past few years and many both strong and weak entries; Darkman is an under appreciated cult classic. It has more depth, intelligence and drive than you’d expect to see from an early nineties superhero film and I’d easily rank it alongside greats like Batman Begins. Just be wary that it has its age certificate for good reasons if you do seek it out.
Also don’t bother with the sequels. They ended up feeling like inferior copies of the original and a lot of aspects they introduced just seemed cartoonish and overblown, pushing suspension of disbelief that little too far.