Director: Sam Raimi (USA). Year of Release: 1990
A warehouse, where film shorthand tells us that sinister things happen. A well-dressed Black man is spouting off about Robert Durant, notorious gentrifier and crook. Enter Durant and entourage. After they are disarmed, one of Durant’s men brings out a gun hidden within his wooden leg, which he uses to take out all of the armed men who had been positioned around the warehouse. Durant then goes to remove the Black man’s fingers one by one.
Is it relevant to mention the skin colour of the first hero/villain? In this case, I think it is. Unless I missed something, this is one of the few BIPoC people who appears in the film. He speaks in jive talk, which is fair enough if you want to hear normal people speaking as they do in their preferred environment, less so when you are reinforcing stereotypes. Whoever thought that this character was important for the development of the film should consider why they came to this conclusion.
Moving on: Dr. Peyton Westlake is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. Through some sort of elaborate 3D printer, he has become able to reproduce noses, and who knows which other human features will follow? The only problem is that whatever he creates only manages to last exactly 99 minutes, after which it disintegrates. Westlake stumbles across the insight that what is holding him back is exposure to light, but he doesn’t really understand how that can help his experiments.
Westlake’s girlfriend Julie is a lawyer, who is chasing down entrepeneur and gentrifier Louis Strack Jr. She has evidence of bribes from Strack, to which he openly admits but asks “what are you going to do about it?” As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Durant is working for Strack, providing the unofficial muscle which helps preserve systemic corruption.
Strack’s goons invade Westlake’s lab, looking for an incriminating letter that Julie has received proving widespread corruption. Westlake’s lab, which for some reason is in a first floor room, is destroyed. His assistant (another disposable BIPoC) is killed and he is missing, presumed dead. All that remains is an ear, which is buried with full respect but a little less work for the gravedigger.
Rather than telling Julie that he is still alive, like any normal person would, Westlake continues to develop his prototypes which enable him to impersonate his adversaries. As long as he can depart the scene within 99 minutes. The film tries doing something with this set up a couple of times, but is not really clear what it wants to do with the idea.
Darkman is a comic book character, but one who’s special powers are fairly limited. He can withstand pain, sure, but this is only at the expense of increased emotional sensitivity. It means that he’s a little bit stronger in the fighty-fighty sequences (of which there are way too many), but there’s nothing much to discern of him having a real character.
There is only one real question we need to ask about Darkman – of course it’s ridiculous, but is it good ridiculous or bad ridiculous? Many of the lines are just so awful that you’re sure that they’re in on the joke, but this is a film starring Liam Neeson who is rarely known to treat himself not seriously enough. It feels that in part that the writers are aware of the ridiculousness of the situation, but the Serious Actors do not want to lose their dignity.
Speaking of the actors, is that Frances McDormand in the lead role? I know this was a long time ago, but she’s got 3 acting Oscars now. You’d have thought they’d have find more for her to do than whimper and scream and wait for the Big Hero to save her. You could make the argument that Darkman is satirising films from another era when women were not allowed substantial speaking roles. Well, maybe it is, but this hardly excuses continuing to restrict opportunities for women.
Darkman is never really clear whether it’s an hommage or a parody. If it’s an hommage, it doesn’t need to excuse itself. This is what films were like in the old days, just lick it up. But if it is really trying to make fun of the old sexist structures, then there is a problem when the parody merely serves to reproduce the original.
Darkman makes all sorts of filmic references, from Phantom of the Opera to King Kong, You can take this either as self-effacing respect or as proof that the film makers were not capably of coming up with an original concept of their own. They may be laughing at themselves, but the main joke may be that they have nothing to say. Me? I’m keeping my options open. It’s an ok film, but no more than that to me.