A decade before he hit the Hollywood jackpot with 'Spider-Man,' Sam Raimi was still toiling in the trenches of low-budget cultdom. Although he's now thought of as mainly as an action director, up until 'Spider-Man' Raimi's real forte might best be labeled as comedy. Having directed the three 'Evil Dead' movies (which are really more slapstick than they are horror), as well as the little-seen farce 'Crimewave,' it would not be until 1990's 'Darkman' that Raimi would be given the opportunity to merge his hyper-stylized visual sensibility with a more mainstream action-thriller in his first major studio production.
The result was a genuine oddity -- a gothic-revenge-romance-action-comedy that feels like the cinematic love child of 'Phantom of the Opera' and a Marx Brothers comedy, as conceived by Preston Sturges on acid. 'Darkman' has all the hallmarks of classic Raimi -- the crazy camera moves, the erratic plot, the wildly uneven shifts in tone and a penchant for overly theatrical performances. But what is perhaps most notable about 'Darkman' is that for the first time it seemed Raimi genuinely cared about his story -- playing up the romantic longings of his main character as much as he does the dark humor and action.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Peyton Westlake, a mild-mannered scientist on the verge of realizing a major breakthrough in synthetic skin -- that is, until his laboratory is destroyed by gangsters led by the dastardly Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Having been burned beyond recognition and forever altered by an experimental medical procedure, Westlake becomes known as Darkman, assuming alternate identities both in a quest for revenge, and in hopes of starting a new life with a former love (Frances McDormand).
Almost twenty years later, 'Darkman' seems more noteworthy as a signpost in the development of Raimi's craftsmanship than as a film in its own right. Though I tend to prefer the more subdued, less eager-to-please Raimi of more serious efforts such as 'The Gift,' 'A Simple Plan' and 'For Love of the Game,' there is no doubt that he is an accomplished, imaginative visual stylist. In 'Darkman,' however, his first larger budget seems to result in an over-indulgence of zany camera moves that detract from the story and the action. Though Raimi does clearly care about Darkman, I never felt the character quite managed to crawl out from under the weight of all of Raimi's excesses.
Also (and I'm sure to incur the wrath of 'Darkman's considerable cult fanbase on this point), I'm of the opinion that Raimi never quite nails the correct tone for the film. A rather horribly overlit, bland-lookng movie, 'Darkman' is shot more like a slapstick comedy than the dark, gothic drama that its love story would really seem to require in order to generate emotion. Though Raimi wisely never pokes fun at Darkman himself, he treats most of the other elements of the story almost as farce. Durant is handled particularly, coming off as a buffon who's never menancing. Without a great villain, much of the seriousness of Darkman's revenge-obsessed persona is sadly rendered impotent.
Likewise, for me, the film's much-touted latex illusions lessen the sense of tragedy to its main character. Neeson overacts terribly -- complete with goofy accent -- largely because it seems as if its the only way he can make an impression under all that make-up. Even the usually fine McDormand seems embarassed spouting the truly hokey dialogue she's given in this role. In short, despite the best efforts of all involved to wring genuine pathos out of a romantic pulp novel blown up to big-screen proportions, 'Darkman' is definitely no hankie movie.
Still, there is something oddly pleasing about Raimi's eagerness to please a mainstream audience with 'Darkman.' Even if it doesn't entirely work, the film is certainly an entertaining pastiche of styles and genres, and is never anything less than a goofy entertainment. I may not be nearly as sold on the picture as Raimi's devoted fans seem to be, but I can't say I didn't have a lot of fun watching it.
'Darkman' hits HD DVD timed with a new standard-def DVD re-issue of the film. Both editions seem to share a new remaster, and as presented here in 1080p/VC-1 (in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio), the results easily fall in the higher tier of Universal's more recent catalog releases.
Though 'Darkman' never looked bad on previous disc editions, in this case the print is noticeably cleaner and perkier. Though the source is still not quite pristine -- there is the occasional instance of dirt and grit -- it remains quite spiffy. And while I've always found the film's cinematography somewhat reminiscent of an overlit TV movie, but 'Darkman' on HD DVD is nothing if not resplendent with great detail and clarity. Blacks are very solid, and contrast has great whites that never look too severe.
Colors are also very bright and late '80s -- lots of ugly fashions with generally hideous shades of orange, green and pink. Still, hues on this HD DVD remain very solid and free of any discernible noise. Shadow delineation is above average for a title of this vintage, with only slight loss of detail in the darkest areas of the image. Sharpness is also superior. All things considered, 'Darkman' is a quite attractive, four-star catalog effort from Universal.
In a nice surprise, Universal has opted to include a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix (48kHz/16-bit) in addition to its standard Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (1.5mbps). It's still relatively rare to find high-resolution audio on an older catalog title, so I was intrigued to hear the results.
Aurally speaking, 'Darkman' is typical Sam Raimi, with loopy camera moves augmented by all manner of fanciful sonic effects. Granted, the film's sound design is not nearly as aggressive as today's modern blockbusters, but the TrueHD mix still offers a nice bump over the standard Dolby track. Surrounds are noticeably bright and prominent, with nice tonal range and are very well directed. Unfortunately, they are not all that well-integrated in the mix in terms of creating a cohesive, 360-degree soundfield -- the rear effects clearly stand out in the mix, while ambiance and score bleed is much more subdued.
However, while the sound in 'Darkman' is somewhat hampered by its gimmicky nature, I was still impressed with this mix, especially taking into acount the film's age. Low bass has noticeable kick, and dialogue is some of the clearest I've heard on a Universal catalog title -- voices are very strong and perfectly balanced. There is also a palpable warmth to the entire frequency spectrum, with Danny Elfman's score in particular refreshingly free of that harshness in the highs that can so grate with late '80s/early '90s soundtracks. Like its video transfer, 'Darkman's soundtrack easily earns four stars.
Strangely, despite the sizable cult fanbase for 'Darkman,' Universal has never produced a single supplement for any of the film's home video releases. That unfortunate trend continues with this HD DVD.
'Darkman' is a fun revenge caper flick from director Sam ('Spider-Man') Raimi that's full of special effects, comedic derring-do and a surprisingly sappy romance. Unfortunately, it hasn't aged all that well over the years, and is now probably most notable as a signpost of Raimi's stylistic development than as a truly successful film. Still, this one has a die-hard cult audience that should enjoy revisiting it in high-def.
Thankfully, Universal has delivered the technical goods on this HD DVD release. The new video transfer is quite good, and the strong Dolby TrueHD track is also a nice surprise. Alas, once again 'Darkman' has evaded the Special Edition fairy (knocking down the overall rating accordingly), but you're a fan of the flick, this disc remains a nice upgrade over the equally supplement-starved standard-def DVD.