Mention the name Sam Raimi to any movie geek behind a video store counter, and he or she is likely to genuflect. Along with fellow genre-bending enfants terribles the Coen brothers (and, of course, Quentin Tarantino), Raimi’s daredevil blend of camera acrobatics and goofball plots in such cult faves as 1983’s The Evil Dead has made him the auteur of choice among film-school shut-ins.
Some of those very same devotees, however, were crying ”sellout” when Raimi’s Darkman, his first big studio film, hit theaters in 1990. But five years later, the campy adventure, about a scientist (Liam Neeson) bent on revenge after a ruthless crime boss and his goons disfigure his face, looks even more like a hilarious homage to comic-book superheroes than it did at first. Now that caped crusaders are taking themselves so very seriously, Raimi couldn’t have picked a better time to return to the saga as executive producer of the made-for-video Darkman II: The Return of Durant.
It may seem like a bleak omen that Raimi isn’t behind the camera for this first sequel (a straight-to-tape Darkman III is already in the works). But director and cinematographer Bradford May (TV’s Lethal Lolita — Amy Fisher: My Story) stays true, in his watered-down way, to Raimi’s playful visual riffing, right down to a series of surreal flashbacks that seamlessly replace Neeson with new Darkman Arnold Vosloo (Hard Target).
While Neeson may be missing, he’s not exactly missed. Vosloo’s subtle Euro-flavored performance is just as effective as Neeson’s overblown turn as the bandaged, trench-coated hero. Unfortunately, refining the sequel’s story seems to have been a lower priority than copying the original’s look. The hero’s sadistic-dandy nemesis, Durant (L.A. Law‘s Larry Drake), apparently blown to bits in the first film’s helicopter crash finale, is in fact alive and itching to take over the city’s underworld with the help of nuclear guns. It plays as silly as it reads, but the real feat of Darkman II is that the self-consciously hip spirit of Raimi’s original hasn’t been lost in its downsizing. It may not be the quickest way for Raimi to get back in the good graces of those frustrated video clerks, but it sure will cheer up the rest of us.
Darkman II: The Return of Durant B-