Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raimifest Day 4: Darkman

Though Darkman is often referred to as a superhero movie, it’s really more of a pulp film. It’s not exactly surprising that the film isn’t often referred to as such. Unlike the superhero, the pulp hero outside of his native habitat is not very well defined. The most notable entries into the film world are the Doc Savage adaptation, which is so bad that it makes the very angels weep, and Russell Mulcahy version of The Shadow, which my critical integrity forces me to admit, I have something of a soft spot for. Shut up. I saw it young. Shut up.

But while those two icons, so ill fated in the cinema, are the most famous remainders of the pulp era, there were others. Operator #5, Nick Carter and The Spider, the ultimate killer vigilante who used to brand his target’s foreheads before killing them. Peyton Westlake with his dark origins, super scientist background and baroque methods fits right in among this motley crew. Not a clean cut avenger, but a maimed and damaged hero whose revenge stems from satisfaction as much as it does justice.

Though it’s often lumped in with the action spectacles of the late eighties and early nineties Darkman only really becomes an action film in it’s final third (with a helicopter chase in particular acting as a showcase for what Raimi would do with the opportunity for mayhem provided to him by the Spiderman films). Most of the film is taken up by Westlake’s increasingly ornate plans for revenge. Which range in tone from horror film to three stooges short, Raimi takes full advantage of the characters adaptability, at times a monster hulking in the sewers, at others playing his own deadly version of “Rabbit Season/Duck Season.”

Like Evil Dead, Darkman suffers/benefits from a real schizophrenia of tone. Mixing some truly brutal scenes, with goofy comic relief, and anachronistic techniques (Particularly the overlays during the fantastic “I’M DOING SCIENCE!” montages). Its important to note that this clashing of tone doesn’t come from Raimi’s nervousness as a filmmaker, the way it might with someone uncomfortable with the tropes of pulp. On the contrary it stems from Raimi’s confidence with the material. Not that he’s not playing it straight, but that he’s playing it so straight he has the courage to follow the story to all the crazy places it takes him.

He’s matched in conviction by Liam Neeson. Like Crimewave before it Raimi found himself forced to cast the role he’d written for Campbell with another actor. Unlike in Crimewave, the choice works kind of brilliantly. As sorry as I am that Campbell ended up continuously passed over for the lead roles he so richly deserved, Neeson is perfect here. Giving the material here the complete dedication it needs. Whether swearing revenge or demanding his Pink Elephant Neeson plays the movie completely straight, and with his hulking presence and charisma he’s equally good at playing the man and the monster. Frances Mc Dormand also helps in giving the film a human center. One of Raimi’s greatest strengths has always been his need to couch spectacle in character, for a genre filmmaker he’s very much a humanist, and I think it’s in Darkman that you really see that start to cohere.

In many ways Darkman is the most important film in Raimi’s career. Countering Crimewave with proof that his voice could survive contact with a major studio and a budget larger then the change he found under the floormats in the classic.


J.D. said...

This may be my fave Raimi film for it sheer bravura camerawork alone. Howzabout that helicopter chase sequence that anticipates THE MATRIX by how many years? And without CGI? I actually consider this one of the best comic book superhero films NOT adapted from a comic book and has a looser, more stylish vibe that I actually prefer over Raimi's SPIDERMAN films (yes, I said it). you watch this film and then realize how much the studio (or was it Raimi himself) toned down Raimi's trademark style when it came to the SPIDERMAN films.

But i do see what you mean re: DARKMAN being a homage to pulp heroes. Raimi has admitted that the character was inspired THE SHADOW and also PHANTOM OF THE OPERA so there's that, too.

Elwood Jones said...

I love the whole "Darkman" trilogy and while Raimi would only return as execetive producer for the sequels, I still felt they kept alot of the character traits true, even though they were both made for peanuts, while finally giving Billy Zane a leading role which didn't make us question why.

The creation of Darkman is also probebly one of the longest chain of events ever needed to create a hero, seeing how he is beaten up, Has his finger removed, dipped in acid, set on fire and then blown up and they are suprised he has such a high pain threshold!

Great to see Ramifest giving this film so much love!

Matt Keeley said...

Wonder if "Westlake" is supposed to be a homage to Donald E.? Though the movie gives off more Stark vibes.

le0pard13 said...

Fine look at this, Bryce. It's such a fun flick, and it has wonderful and tortured soul of a pulp hero. Besides, I'm a huge Liam Neeson fan -- just wished we'd had more Larry Drake screen time. Thanks.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ JD: You make an excellent point, and the helicopter chase is a fantastic set piece. It's a fantastic film to look at.

@ Elwood: Man I don't know what it was about Action movies from this period, but they made DAMN sure you knew why the heroes were getting revenge. Between this and Robocop it'd be tough to say which was more brutal.

@Keele: Interesting thought. Darkman does have a bit of Dortmunder in him...

@ Le0pard13: Thanks man. But Drake makes such good use of his screentime you almost feel like he's on the whole time.

JPK said...

This is a great piece and has me rethinking Darkman and even the Spider-Man movies, which I've maybe underrated until now.

Biba Pickles said...


David Robson, Proprietor, House of Sparrows said...

>>One of Raimi’s greatest strengths has always been his need to couch spectacle in character, for a genre filmmaker he’s very much a humanist, and I think it’s in Darkman that you really see that start to cohere.

If/when you revisit FOR LOVE OF THE GAME, please keep this in mind.

Loved this piece (and the whole damn 'fest, come to think of it).