Darkman, the fourth feature by Sam Raimi, is a prime example of how movies at their most cheerfully trashy can move you in ways that classier films can’t. Raimi, who secured a place in my heart with one scene from Evil Dead II (wherein the hero, attacked by his own giggling, demon-possessed hand, slices it off with a chainsaw, shouting “Who’s laughing now?”), is a supreme prankster with a deep respect for all the cheesy romanticism of misunderstood-monster movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera or Frankenstein. Sure it’s tacky, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still work, especially when a director as endearingly loopy as Sam Raimi serves it to us.
Darkman began as a short story by Raimi, who expanded it into a script with his brother Ivan, Chuck Pfarrer, and Daniel and Joshua Goldin. What they cobbled up is a lovably (and lovingly) pulpy premise: A scientist, Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), is experimenting with a new synthetic skin he’s developed; he’s sabotaged by a pack of gangsters, mutilated, and left for dead in his lab, which is rigged to explode. Westlake survives the blast and escapes from the hospital, endowed now with superhuman strength and fierce, unpredictable mood swings. He becomes Darkman (he needs the cover of darkness, especially when wearing the fake skin, which only lasts 99 minutes in daylight), a tragic figure with a ruined face and an intense longing for his past life and love Julie (Frances McDormand). He rebuilds his lab and makes “copies” of each gangster’s face; he slinks around the city after sundown, wearing the villains’ “faces” and picking them off one by one.
The plot is a hodgepodge, the dialogue often atrocious, I suspect by design: “What if I was scarred,” the masked Westlake urgently inquires of Julie, “disfigured, so that you couldn’t bear to look at me, to touch me — what then, eh?” We’re firmly and affectionately in comic-book land here; the dialogue is delivered in italics, with jagged speech balloons signifying screaming (Darkman is the loudest movie in some time, in no small part due to Danny Elfman’s mega-caffeinated score). But Raimi’s gift is that he transcends the cheese by his very loyalty to it — he embraces it, runs with it, does pirouettes with it. And few, if any, filmmakers have yet approached Raimi’s fearless camerawork. His camera has wings, it does loop-the-loops, it shows you things you’ve never seen before. If you ever wondered what it might feel like to be smashed face-first repeatedly into glass cabinets, Darkman has that answer and many more.
As action spectacle, Darkman is exhilaratingly violent; the scenes of brutality are much more bracing here than in a comparably witless head-slammer like Total Recall, because they arrive right when the narrative needs them — they’re like the climaxes in a classical piece. Many of the more violent bits are wondrous little sick jokes. One villain (Larry Drake, a far cry from his well-meaning character Benny on L.A. Law) snips his victims’ fingers off with his cigar trimmer and saves them; another bad guy is captured by Darkman and thrust up through a manhole as cars speed past his head; the scientist’s undoing turns out to be one of those bobbing plastic drinking-glass birds, which bobs forth and triggers the explosion.
There are also sequences so incongruously touching that you feel a real pang — that’s what makes Darkman better than the snotty, ironic pop trifle it might have been. Darkman stands outside a window, peering in, and crumples in misery when he sees Julie dancing with the head villain (Colin Friels); elsewhere, he flies into a horrifying rage when, at a circus with Julie, he is denied a stuffed pink elephant he’s won for her. (This, however, leads to some memorably hilarious dialogue and sight gags, which makes Raimi the rare director who can go for pathos and comedy in the same scene, and pull off both.)
The movie has been getting a bit of a bum rap from critics who can’t stomach its violent humor or its shameless comic-bookness. Movies like Darkman aren’t really for them, or for anyone else who can’t surrender to the ride. It comes on exceptionally strong, sure of itself and its basic, primitive hold on the audience, and this has not been a period for boldness at the movies — not in a climate wherein the amiable, comforting pillow Driving Miss Daisy took the Best Picture Oscar earlier this year. Sam Raimi isn’t remotely interested in comforting us; he just wants to slam us around in a fast, brutal dance, and we stagger away dazed but satisfied. Darkman will never, and should never, be mistaken for art, but it’s about the only thing out there right now that reminds us what real moviemaking tastes like.