In two nights I sat down to watch the remake of the 1941 classic "The Wolfman," the original film streamed over the Internet and Sam Raimi's homage to the classic Universal films, "Darkman." Raimi has become better known in more recent years for his work with the "Spider-Man" franchise, but horror movie buffs will always remember him for his work on the "Evil Dead" films. Watching the two "Wolfman" films with Raimi's movie showed some of the similarities and the influences these movies had on Raimi's creation. Raimi cut his teeth working in horror and many of today's young filmmakers were influenced by his body of work as the creator and director of the cult horror series that made Bruce Campbell one of the greatest B-Movie actors in Hollywood history. "Darkman" is Raimi's creation, but it sits nicely in Universal's stable.
From the very beginning of the film and the vintage Universal logo, it is apparent that the old Universal monster movies and a love of comic books were the inspiration for Raimi's "Darkman." The director had previously attempted to secure movie making rights to the Batman character and the Shadow. However, deals had already been struck for those characters. Instead of giving up hope to create a superhero movie with one of the famous non-superpower enabled heroes, Raimi sat down and created his own hero. Combining many similar elements from both Batman and The Shadow with a mix of the pathos of the old Universal monsters, Raimi's "Darkman" became a successful franchise in is own right, earning nearly fifty million dollars and spawning sequels, comic books and action figures.
Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist who has devoted his life to manufacturing replacement skin for burn victims and providing digital imaging technology that can accurately replace a burn victims face with a perfect facsimile of their previous appearance. He is very close to making the breakthrough he needs, but the skin breaks down at an atomic level after an hour and a half of light exposure (99 minutes to be exact). The artificial skin does last in darkness, but Westlake cannot get the liquid-based skin to stabilize under natural lighting. He is a driven man and passionate about his work, but he still maintains enough time for his girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand).
Julie is a lawyer and has dealings with a wealthy real-estate tycoon, Louis Strack, Jr. (Colin Friels). While reviewing her documents one day, she realizes she has come into possession of a memo detailing payoffs to a crime boss named Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake). She approaches Strack about the payoffs and Strack requests she return the document to his possession and that he is trying to protect her from the ruthless Durant. She tells him that she may not be able to turn a blind eye to what is happening and Strack suggests that she simply leave it sitting where he can take it without her knowing. She refuses.
That night, Peyton is visited by Durant. Durant and his thugs destroy Peyton's lab, they kill his assistant and leave him horribly burned and scarred in the aftermath. Peyton is presumed dead and Julie mourns for him. However, Peyton was not killed and his horribly burned body was recovered, although he is believed to have been an anonymous vagabond. Subjected to experimental surgery to alleviate the pain of the burns, Peyton can no longer feel pain and has superior strength due to enhanced levels of adrenaline. From Durant's vicious attack, Darkman is born.
Peyton is tormented by the loss of his face and of his hands. He yearns to make his presence known to Julie. To do this, he must reconstruct his face from a damaged photograph and rebuild his destroyed lab. Peyton must also enact revenge upon Durant and those that brought an end to the happy existence he was accustomed to. To do this, he monitors and photographs Durant and his men. This allows Peyton to use his technology and assume their identities to infiltrate the organization and bring about Durant's end. The problem lies in the ninety-nine minute deadline that Peyton has for each identity because of the rapid atomic breakdown of the artificial skin.
Julie and Peyton finally begin to rebuild their lives, although she does not realize that Peyton is burned beyond recognition under his artificial skin. Making his presence known to Julie turns out to be a bad decision on Peyton's part as Durant and Strack find out that Darkman is indeed Peyton and they once again turn their evil doings towards the scientist and his lab. Peyton slowly comes to terms with his new identity as a monstrous hero and forces his energies away from rekindling his love with Julie and more towards bringing down the evil empire of Robert G. Durant. Eventually, a climactic battle ensues between a scientist and a real estate tycoon.
I point out the vocations of the protagonist and antagonist for good reason. The final fight between villain and hero is more anti-climactic than climactic. Although I found Strack's ability to outpunch Darkman a little humorous, I reminded myself that he wasn't a fighter, but a scientist. While it isn't an exciting pugilistic confrontation, it is nicely done. This is two 'normal' people duking it out. Neither has super hero skills and neither is a trained fighter. "Darkman" is a hero that was given strength and durability, but uses his mind and ability to take another's identity to fight crime. He is not a warrior. Strack is a weasely business man who can jump handedly on steel girders.
While some of the technology and situations are a little over the top, "Darkman" is a comic book film that succeeds because it is grounds its hero in a world that could conceivably be true; much in the same manner that made "Batman Begins" a successful reinvention of that franchise. "Darkman" is a film that given the technology, the character and the world he inhabits could exist. The only ´stretch´ of the imagination in the film is the skin generating capabilities of Peyton. Other than that, everything seen in the film is not too terribly far fetched. The film is enjoyable because it is a departure from the typical conventions of a super hero / comic book movie.
The film´s director, Sam Raimi, is the person most deserving of praise for this picture. It was his ideas, story and vision that brought "Darkman" to life. This is his movie and his movie alone. Raimi´s storytelling style and visual aptitude come into play throughout the film and "Darkman" never becomes boring. There is always something going on. Although some would ponder why Raimi didn´t cast his lifelong friend Bruce Campbell in the starring role, the choice of Liam Neeson was a good one. Frances McDormand is another fine actor and helps give credence to "Darkman." She shares good chemistry with her costars and is a very believable lawyer in distress. With good acting, good direction and an entertaining little story, "Darkman" may be one of the finest comic book style films to date.
This is the second helping for "Darkman" in high definition and it is a carbon copy of the previous HD-DVD release of the 1.85:1 film. This film is a twenty-year-old catalog title that holds up nicely and is far better than some catalog titles, but it is clearly not among the best catalog releases. Detail is quite good and colors are fairly good considering the vintage and it is nice to watch a movie that is not overly processed as many of today's films are. Director of Photography Bill Pope has created a film with a visual style that will remind many of the older "Evil Dead" films and this manner of photography does not lend itself to creating the most awe inspiring high definition film, but the transfer does the best it can with the allotted source materials. When the protagonist is hiding in the shadows, black levels and shadow detail are solid. The film is very clean and the former mastering was clearly from pristine source materials. There is zero reason to upgrade the HD-DVD, but those without that release will find this a pleasant upgrade over the DVD.
The opening scene of the film featured a little dialogue and some gunfire and I found myself turning up the volume a notch to hear the vocals. Shortly after this sequence, the Danny Elfman score kicks onto high gear and while it is eerily reminiscent to the "Batman" score from the previous year, it is the heart and soul of "Darkman" and helps push along the mood and character of the film. All channels are used for this score and it makes the most of the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 clone of the previous Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. There are some good effects in the film, but Elfman's score is kept front and center, although the twenty minute mark of the film has a very deep and impressive heartbeat that really pushes the .1 LFE channel. This is a clear sounding film and once I turned up the volume a couple decibels I had zero problems with hearing the dialogue. English SDH subtitles are also included with this mix.
The Blu-ray release of "Darkman" fully rivals the previous HD-DVD release of the film. There are zero bonus materials on this disc aside from a few menu based items that do show that Blu-ray is now a little further along than HD-DVD was when it surrendered its share of the high definition marketplace. The little Ticker is prevalent and pushes advertisements to the viewer and when the disc booted up, it provided forced advertisements that were streamed through the BD-Live connection. This included the Blu-ray advertisement for the new remake of "The Wolfman." While there isn't anything on the disc relating to the film, it could be said that the Blu-ray version has a lot more advertising capability. I'll leave that to you to decide if it is a good or bad thing.
"Darkman" is back in high definition once again and there is little improvement in this release as it is essentially a carbon copy of the previous HD-DVD release and offers no reason to upgrade for those who own the first high definition release of this title. The picture and sound are improved upon and those with just the DVD release of the film may find some reason to upgrade. When "Darkman" was first released on HD-DVD, it was the first time I've watched the film in its entirety. I enjoy Raimi's creation and think it is a nice homage to the classic horror films and his own take on the comic book hero concept. He nicely melds the two into his own classic and one day Universal may decide to remake "Darkman" with a new and expensive endeavor. I'm still a little miffed that there are no special effects and thing it is about time that Universal releases the other two films in high definition.