If you’ve ever witnessed his performances in films like The Haunting (1999), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and, more recently, Clash Of The Titans, you might think Liam Neeson is the kind of guy that phones his roles in and collects a rather meaty paycheck afterward. The same theory can also be appled to director Sam Raimi, who lost most of his reputation after helming the hugely successful but utterly terrible Spider-Man 3.
Should any of you doubt the validity of either Neeson or Raimi, however, this would be the ideal time to revisit their only collaboration together, 1990’s Darkman, which is now available on Blu-ray from Universal Studios.
Those of you who have never seen Darkman at all, on the other hand, are doomed to die a thousand deaths. There’s a special place in Hell for you: one where they force you to watch The Haunting and Spider-Man 3 on a daily basis. Shame on you. This is required viewing, dammit.
Apart from having made the much-hated box office bomb Crimewave, Sam Raimi was really only known by horror aficionados for the first two Evil Dead films when Darkman rolled around. Originally, Raimi had wanted to make an adaptation of The Shadow, but the rights were unobtainable at the time (Universal did eventually create a big-screen adaptation of The Shadow in 1994 starring Alec Baldwin, and it failed miserably — serves ‘em right).
Undaunted, Raimi chose to create his own superhero character instead. The result was Peyton Westlake (Neeson), a good-natured and noble scientist who is working on a new form of synthetic skin.
While his creation has proven to be successful, it isn’t perfect. His synthetic skin only lasts about ninety-nine minutes in any form of light before it disintegrates. And, so, it’s back to the drawing board for the good doctor. Meanwhile, Peyton’s girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) has come across evidence of a bribe made by her employer, Louis Strack, Jr. (Colin Friels): a memorandum that could seriously jeopardize Strack’s aspirations to turn the crime-ridden cesspool of a city into a bright new mega-city of the future.
Somehow, word of the memorandum gets out, and local mob boss Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake, in his finest performance apart from Dr. Giggles) invades both Westlake’s life and career to retrieve it.
A true sadist in every sense of the word, Durant is shown in the film’s prologue brutally chopping off a competitor’s fingers with a cigar cutter, shortly after his motley crew of stooges massacre the doomed gangster’s many henchmen.
Their encounter is brief, but fateful. Durant’s men (including Dan Bell, Ted Raimi, Dan Hicks and the late great Nicholas Worth), murder his lab assistant (keeping his fingers for Durant’s souvenir box), disfigure Dr. Westlake’s face and hands, and leave him for dead, blowing up his lab for good measure.
But, like all good superheroes, Peyton isn’t going to take this shit lying down. Just like Liam Neeson would later vow in Taken, he will find them — and he will kill them.
Stripped of the ability to feel pain, Peyton retrieves what is left of his primitive, DOS-based computers and sets up shop in an abandoned warehouse (all good cities have one just for superheroes). There, he begins to plot his revenge against the men who destroyed his world by making masks of his enemies, which he uses to turn the villains against each other.
In layman‘s terms, Darkman is a true cult classic. And a kick-ass good film. It was one of the first Hollywood films (if not the first) to get the whole comic book-to-screen formula right, and we owe it all to Sam Raimi’s inventive plot and inspired direction. Neeson is in top form as the film’s butter-face borderline-psycho anti-hero: a shell of a man who goes from gentle to giant at the mere mention of the word, “Freak.” The graphic novel blend of action is tight, the actors know how to keep their tongues-in-cheek to pull of the film’s oft-humorous dialogue (with the exception of co-star Friels, whose casting proves to be the film’s weakest link), and there’s even the required cameos by both Bruce Campbell and Raimi’s vintage Oldsmobile.
In fact, Darkman is such a great film, that we can even learn to forgive Neeson and Raimi for some of their embarrassing, more-recent exploits by watching it again (or visiting it for the first time, in which case I remind you: shame!).
As thrilling as the prospect of having Darkman in High Def sounds, I regret to say that Universal’s Blu-ray is a disappointment. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer of the film presents the movie in its original 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, but ultimately can’t decide whether or not it wants to look good. Colors, contrast, and detail range from crisp and robust to soft and icky, as we are treated to a roller coaster ride of quality. Truthfully, it’s passable, but not as great as it should be. Then again, this could have something to do with the sometimes grainy and unreliable filmstock that was so commonly used in movies from the 1990s.
On the audio end of the spectrum, Darkman once again says, “Ho-hum” to us all. The disc is encoded with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless soundtrack; one which has taken the film’s original (and rather lackluster) stereo surround mix (another byproduct of ‘90s filmmaking) and turned it into, well…nothing special, really. The rear channels are used sparingly, while the rest of the movie‘s audio action sounds just as Dolby-deficient as it did in theaters twenty years ago. English (SDH), Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
But the biggest frown Darkman fans will be giving Universal lies in their selection of special features. There are none. No, instead of tacking the film’s direct-to-video sequels (which have been shamelessly re-released on SD-DVD to coincide with this Blu-ray release) onto the 25GB disc, giving us the option to finally see that rare television pilot that was supposedly made, or even throwing in a god-damn theatrical teaser trailer for that matter, Universal has solemnly pledged “No soup for you” to Darkman fans worldwide by once again giving us absolutely nothing.
Someday, I’m going to figure out Dr. Westlake’s formula for synthetic skin, infiltrate the suits at Universal, and turn them against each other. Until that day comes to pass, however, Universal’s Blu-ray release of Darkman is a passable one.
But the movie is still required viewing, all the same.