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Darkman Retro Review: I Am the Night

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BY August 30, 2020
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In honor of Darkman‘s 30th anniversary–it debuted on August 24, 1990–I watched it for a Retro Review. In case you missed it, our Retro Reviews are a way for us to fight the past. We get our revenge on linear time by reviewing things that we didn’t see or play or whatever when they first came out. Now, I never saw this when it originally released, so my Darkman Retro Review is, technically, just a regular-old review.

Who is Darkman?

Director Sam Raimi didn’t set out to make a film based on an original story. Instead, he had wanted to make a comic book movie. (In the late 80s, though, that still counted as an original thought.) He obviously didn’t get the rights to Batman. He also didn’t get the rights to The Shadow, an old hero from comic strips and radio dramas. Instead, he ended up writing a short story called “Darkman” and then developing it into a film treatment.

darkman retro review image via Universal Pictures

The story focuses on Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), who’s trying to create and perfect synthetic skin for burn survivors. Unfortunately, his girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), a real…trusting soul discovers a a memo that details corruption in the local city government. This is unfortunate because a lot of people are intent on that memorandum and its contents never becoming public. As such, they’ll go to dangerous lengths to protect it. (Editor’s Note: In the past, kids, politicians couldn’t just openly admit crimes and have nothing happen.)

One of those lengths goes through Westlake. When a gang of thugs, led by crime boss Robert Durant (Larry Drake), show up at the lab, Westlake doesn’t have to play dumb. He genuinely doesn’t know anything about the memo. That isn’t good enough for the goons, though. So in the course of their “investigation,” they kill Westlake’s assistant Yakitito (Nelson Mashita) and disfigure Westlake, leaving him for dead. But he ain’t dead.

Instead, after an experimental treatment at the hospital, Westlake returns to his work. This time, though, his work is vengeance. He becomes Darkman, working to exact revenge on the men who ruined his life. The hospital treatment gave him special abilities, but it also has a deleterious effect on his mental health. Can Darkman make his enemies pay before it’s ‘lights-out’ forever? (I’m booing my own pun here.)

Darkman Retro Review

I’m not quite sure why I never saw Darkman before. I think maybe I just thought of it as an action movie and those are a big pop culture blind spot for me. And in watching it, what I found was…an action movie. But not what I was previously expecting.

One of the biggest influences for the Darkman story was The Shadow, a 30s-era crime-fighting superhero. Raimi also drew inspiration from Universal’s legendary horror movies, as well as films like The Elephant Man. And these inspirations aren’t subtle; Raimi wears them on his sleeve. Unsurprisingly, at least to me, it all works.

darkman retro review image via Universal Pictures

This does become an action movie, particularly in the climax of the film, but before that, it’s kinda campy. The fact that Liam Neeson would become an action star someday after this feels logical. But this isn’t the iron-jawed action hero Neeson would become. (“I’m not hijacking this plane. I’M TRYING TO SAVE IT!”) Instead, this is Neeson becoming an action star just as much as Westlake is becoming a crimefighter. And it’s a Sam Raimi movie, released one year after Batman. As such, it plays as almost cartoonish at points.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing by the way. As established, I see Tim Burton’s Batman as the one true king. (I reserve the right to reassess this after I see the Battinson.) And I love Universal horror. So, yeah, I enjoyed the experience.

To Sum Up

If I had one small (major) complaint, though, then it would be with the characterization. Neeson’s Westlake is well-established enough and obviously Neeson is a competent actor. I’d like to write, “Frances McDormand is also there,” but I don’t want this to come across as criticism of her. She’s great, as always, maybe because she realized the character is kind of a “bimbo.” That is to say, she’s paper-thin.

darkman retro review This guy bothering you, ma’am? Also, who is he? (image via Universal Pictures)

And that stretches to the bad guys. As Westlake takes on his “my love is vengeance” path, it’s fun to watch, but it all lands with a dull thud. I barely know who any of these guys are and I can’t really tell them apart. I only know Larry Drake’s Durant, because I was the kind of kid who watched LA Law. (And Dr. Giggles.) If these guys were given just a teensy bit of story, besides “they’re bad,” then I would have liked it a lot more. As it is, it’s a solid B plus movie and not just because it’s basically a well-funded b-movie.

What did you think of Darkman? Let us know your thoughts on this or anything else by engaging our social media platforms or by yelling in our comments.

featured image via Universal Pictures

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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