Darkman is bargain-basement-horror whiz kid Sam Raimi’s debut in the big-budget league. The director who gave us The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II fitfully tries to behave himself here, but it’s our great good luck that he doesn’t succeed. While the plot of this superhero extravaganza places it firmly in Batman/Dick Tracy territory, Raimi’s prankish wit deflates notions of pop-art pomp. Next to the lumbering self-importance of most summer blockbusters, Darkman‘s roller-coaster irreverence seems downright subversive.
Our hero is Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a brilliant if mopey scientist who is horribly scarred when goons blow up his lab. Westlake had created a synthetic skin, and he takes his revenge by disguising himself with the faces of his enemies, setting them against each other. Raimi has a genius for handling this sort of warped comic-book material: give him an action scene and out comes a mile-wide perverse streak and a fish-eye lens. One astounding sequence, set in a carnival, literally takes the viewer in one of Darkman’s eyes and out the other, showing us his seething, paranoid brain on the way (you’ll want to watch it frame by frame just to try to figure out how it’s done).
At heart, Darkman is just shallow junk, of course, with gaping plot holes and sketchy characters, but that’s what this director thrives on. Otherwise he wouldn’t take an off-the-wall risk like casting Larry Drake, L.A. Law‘s gentle, retarded Benny, as a sneering villain (the risk works — Drake’s a slick hoot). Raimi gives the superhero genre back the crummy pop verve that enlivened it in the first place, and he never mistakes what he’s doing for anything you should take seriously. B+