Friday, December 2, 2016

Worth Mentioning - Justice Has a New Face

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody takes a look at the Darkman trilogy and the unaired Darkman pilot.

DARKMAN (1990)

After getting some notice with his debut feature The Evil Dead, following that up with the minor disaster of the comedy Crimewave, and then rocking the horror community with Evil Dead II, Sam Raimi wanted to make a comic book superhero movie. Looking back a few decades later, we know that he would go on to direct a trilogy of Spider-Man films, but in the late '80s he was having trouble getting his hands on a property. The rights to two characters he wanted to bring to the big screen - Batman and The Shadow - had already been snatched up by others, so rather than continue looking for an established character Raimi decided to create his own. Given the fact that two of the three films he had made at that point were horror movies, it's not too surprising that Raimi drew inspiration from darker films and classic horror movies, in particular the Universal Monster movies, in creating this new character. Fittingly, the project ended up being made at Universal.

The action film Navy SEALs, which came out the same year as Darkman, has become a bit of a punchline since it was first released, but Raimi was so impressed by that film's script that he chose its writer Chuck Pfarrer to flesh his ideas out into a screenplay. The writing duo of Daniel and Joshua Goldin also earned their first screen credit for working on the script, which was then fine tuned by Raimi and his brother Ivan, with whom he would go on to write the third Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness (also a Universal release).

A surprising choice Raimi made while putting together his crimefighter film was to make it a bit more hard-edged than you might expect. Darkman is rated R, and starts earning that rating within the first two minutes, when one of the first lines spoken includes an F-bomb.

Our hero is Dr. Peyton Westlake, played by Liam Neeson, who is working on developing a liquid synthetic skin that burn victims will be able to wear over their scars. Unfortunately, Peyton has run into a problem he can't seem to overcome - the skin keeps disintegrating after 99 minutes if it's not kept in darkness. Despite this issue, Peyton has a pretty good life - he's working on a noble project and things are going very well with his girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), an attorney who is hesitant to take their relationship to the next level when Peyton informally asks her to marry him.

This good life is torn apart when Julie discovers evidence that wealthy land developer Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels) has been paying off the zoning commission in his effort to build a dazzling "City of the Future" on the local waterfront. This discovery is quite dangerous, because infamous mobster Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake) is said to be looking for this evidence himself. And we know that Durant and his henchmen - Ted Raimi as Ricky, Nicholas Worth as Pauly, Dan Bell as Smiley, Rafael H. Robledo as Rudy, Danny Hicks as Skip - mean business, because the film begins with a scene of them mowing down a warehouse full of crime organization rivals with a machine gun that was hidden in Skip's wooden leg. Durant then amused himself by using his cigar cutter to slice off the fingers of the organization's leader to add to his collection.

One dark night, Durant and his goons invade Peyton's laboratory, and in a very intense sequence they murder his assistant and terribly disfigure Peyton. Electricity fries his hands down to the bone, the villains dunk his head into a vat of acid, and then he's left to die in an explosion. But instead of killing him, the explosion throws him through a window and out into the river across the street.

The only part of Peyton that is recovered is his ear. He is presumed dead, but meanwhile he is hospitalized as a John Doe, and the desperate attempts to save him include severing the nerves within the spino-thalamic tract so he won't feel pain anymore. The side effect of this loss of sensation is that his emotions will be amplified and surges of adrenaline run through his body unchecked, giving him enhanced strength. "Uncontrolled rage" is not uncommon in cases like this, and Peyton does indeed wake up very angry. He escapes from the hospital... and within the first 25 minutes of the film we have witnessed the origin of a new hero. Darkman.

Peyton tries to reconnect with Julie, but feels too hideous to reveal his true condition to her. In his new home/laboratory, an abandoned factory, he creates new batches of synthetic skin for his own use, but that means he can only spend 99 minutes with Julie at a time, and even then he's too mentally and emotionally unstable to really carry on with their relationship.

As Darkman, his first mission is a mission of vengeance. He strikes out at the men who destroyed his life, making synthetic skin masks of Durant and his men and learning how to mimic their voices so he can pass himself off as various members of the group, infiltrate their ranks, disrupt their business deals, and tear them down from within. While doing this, it becomes clear that there's more to the Durant situation than Strack had revealed.

This is an action/superhero movie, but it's not far off from the horror movies on Raimi's filmography, as there are a lot of disturbing elements to this film. It has an unnerving tone and style to it, and Peyton's mental state has a lot to do with the creepiness. He can turn into a raging maniac, and he's so awkward when mimicking other people sometimes that it gives an odd feeling to whole scenes.

As Peyton/Darkman, Liam Neeson is buried under make-up and bandages for a lot of his screen time, and it does feel like something was lost by having him so obscured. Still, he did a great job of getting across the character's out-of-control emotions. Raimi surrounded him with an incredible cast of characters actors and while Neeson was a few years away from his own Oscar nomination, McDormand had already received a nomination and was six years from a win.

Darkman isn't the most pure of heroes, this off-kilter vigilante isn't someone to look up to like a Spider-Man or a Captain America, but we do care for Peyton and feel sympathy for him, and it's entertaining to watch him get his revenge on a group of very bad guys who are very deserving of the comeuppance they get. And even though the special effects are a bit dodgy by modern standards, the sequence where Darkman hangs off a helicopter containing Durant while the villain fires incendiary rounds from a projectile launcher stills holds up as one hell of an action set piece.

Superhero movies have come a long way since the release of this one, Raimi has made some better ones of his own, but at the time Darkman was highly impressive and ranked up there among some of the best superhero movies we had gotten. I'm not sure how it would go over with kids now, but it certainly had an impact on my childhood and I had no problem adding Darkman to the list of my favorite heroes. I watched the movie repeatedly, I collected Darkman tie-in comics and books. Raimi's creation worked for me then and still does today.


Sam Raimi and his producing partner Robert Tapert got into producing television shows in the '90s and has solid success with series like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, but somehow it slipped past me for more than twenty years that Raimi and Tapert's first television project was an attempt at getting a Darkman TV series made.

Darkman: The Series never made it past the pilot, which was written by Robert Eisele, a veteran of shows like Cagney & Lacey and The Equalizer, and directed by Briant Grant, who has a whole lot of TV and music video credits to his name. Liam Neeson wasn't going to star in a Darkman TV show, so the role of Peyton Westlake / Darkman was recast with Christopher Bowen, a British actor who has crossed paths with Doctor Who and appeared in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Unlike Neeson, who put on an American accent when he played the character, Bowen retains his own accent.

Darkman now being British is made less jarring by the fact that the beginning of the pilot retcons the events of the film. This is not a follow-up to the movie, it's more like an alternate universe. Here Peyton was married to Julie Hastings and she was killed in the explosion that disfigured him. There is no villain named Louis Strack Jr., there is only the mobster Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake reprises the role), who runs this city, the police and politicians in his pocket. Durant isn't looking to build an extravagant "City of the Future", and the city is crumbling under his rule. Rather than move into an abandoned factory after his lab is blown up, this iteration of Darkman makes an abandoned observatory his new base of operations. And from here, he plots his revenge on Durant.

Darkman only makes one quick attempt to get his revenge in this episode, an assassination-gone-wrong in a nightclub that allows for about 40 seconds of actual "action" - action that mainly serves to show that kicking a man who can feel no pain in the testicles will still not cause him to feel pain.

Mainly the pilot's 22 minutes were about setting up who Darkman is and showing the new alliance he forms with a police officer named Jenny (Kathleen York), the "last honest cop" in the city, who has her own personal vendetta against Durant. When the crime kingpin shoots her in the back, Darkman nurses her back to health and the pilot ends with Darkman and Jenny prepared to continue their fight against Durant through a series that never happened. The pilot never even made it to the air.

There is a lot of promise in the idea of a Darkman TV series, but I'm not convinced that this would have been the way to go - the altered back story, the wasteland of the series. I don't know why they felt the need to switch things up instead of just trying to pick up where the movie left off, with Darkman fighting crime in a regular city and Julie still alive, working as an attorney.

As for how Christopher Bowen does in the role, it's tough to say. He doesn't really get to do much other than deliver a lot of voiceover and act moody. The moment where Darkman blows up on a street kid and screams "No one knows how I feel!" was pretty awful. Neeson's rage made him seem like a lunatic, Bowen's made him seem like a petulant teenager.


Universal tends to be good about building franchises, particularly on the home video market. An example of this is one of my favorite franchises out there, Tremors, and another is Darkman. The character's creator Sam Raimi returned to executive produce two direct-to-video sequels that were made back-to-back with TV director Bradford May at the helm, not only directing but also serving as cinematographer on the films.

The story for the first sequel was crafted by Robert Eisele and Lawrence Hertzog, both of whom had a lot of TV credits to their name - and in fact, Eisele wrote that ill-fated Darkman TV series pilot a few years earlier. Steven McKay, writer of the Steven Seagal vehicle Hard to Kill, then stepped in to write the screenplay.

The first Darkman movie ended with Peyton Westlake walking out of his girlfriend's life and moving among the people of the city while wearing a mask that made him look like Raimi regular Bruce Campbell. This could have opened the door to Campbell taking over the role from Liam Neeson, because you know Neeson isn't coming back for direct-to-video sequels, and that would have been truly amazing, to have Darkman II and III starring Bruce Campbell as the title character. Instead, Neeson was replaced with a decent actor who just isn't as cool as Campbell (but who is?), Arnold Vosloo. An actor from South Africa who wasn't able to mask his accent very well.

Like the TV pilot, the recap at the head of Darkman II gives mobster Robert G. Durant all the credit for the first movie's villainy, but unlike the pilot the sequel don't actually rework any of the events of the film and does pick up after the story that was told there - 878 days after it, in fact. During that time, Darkman has continued fighting crime in his city while surviving off the money he steals from the criminals he incapacitates. He lives in an abandoned subway tunnel, where he has put together a new laboratory for himself and continues working on his synthetic skin invention. He still can't get it last longer than 99 minutes.

When Peyton / Darkman discovers that another local scientist, Jesse Collins as Dr. David Brinkman, is also working on synthetic skin, he seeks to partner up with the man, who has his lab in a closed down factory that belonged to his father. With their research combined, Brinkman is quickly making breakthroughs - but before that can really go anywhere, tragedy strikes. A criminal organization is looking to improve their gun running business, and the Brinkman factory is the perfect location from them to base this operation out of. When Brinkman refuses to sell the place to them, he's gotta go.

The boss of this criminal organization? Robert G. Durant, again played by Larry Drake. You may have thought Durant died in an explosive helicopter crash in the first movie, but this sequel tells us that it just put him into a coma, and on a dark and stormy night two and half years later he awakes from that coma and gets back to work.

After Durant and his new group of henchmen murder Brinkman in a scene that is very reminiscent of when they destroyed Peyton's life in the original film, Darkman realizes that his nemesis has returned, just as the subtitle promised he would. So he sets out to take Durant down all over again, re-using the tactic of wearing masks and mimicking voices to steal identities and interact with the bad guys. It's another mission of revenge, but at the same time Durant is conducting business that definitely needs to be stopped.

With the aid of a mentally unstable scientist (Lawrence Dane as Dr. Alfred Hathaway) who Durant has broken out of a cell that looks very much like Hannibal Lecter's did in The Silence of the Lambs, Durant is building plutonium-powered particle beam rifles that he plans to sell for $5 million a piece. These weapons are way too powerful for Darkman to allow them to get out into the world.

Darkman also needs to protect Brinkman's sister Laurie (Renee O'Connor, who would go on to co-star on Xena: Warrior Princess for Raimi), who inherits the factory from her brother, and he is aided in his battle against Durant by a reporter named Jill Randall (Kim Delaney), who is both able to deduce that Durant is alive and figures out that Darkman's true identity is Peyton Westlake.

The story of The Return of Durant is a bit wobbly from the start, because it doesn't really seem necessary to bring back a villain who had one of the most impressive deaths of the first movie. And if you're bringing Durant back, why not also bring back Danny Hicks as his henchman Skip, since his death scene was cut out of the first movie?

Regardless of the questionable set-up, the sequel is pretty good overall, it just takes a hit from budgetary restrictions - it doesn't have as much action as its predecessor, and when there is action it's not on the same scale. You get a few explosions and vehicular damage, but there's nothing that will blow you away. This is more of a low-key crime thriller that happens to have some cartoony, comic book-ish elements mixed into it.

One also can't help but note that Peyton has obviously gotten his rage problems under control in the years since the events of the previous picture, as he is much less angry and crazy than he was the first time he was going up against Durant. I really don't see any reason why he couldn't go back to his girlfriend Julie at this point, he's a nice, suave fellow when he's able to interact with people as himself, wearing his Arnold Vosloo face.


Having killed off mobster Robert G. Durant at the end of Darkman II (again), the filmmakers wisely switched things up in the villain department for the third film, although they didn't stray far away from the organized crime bad guys of the previous two films - in fact they didn't stray from that at all. Durant stays dead this time and the lead villain is a brand new character, Jeff Fahey as Peter Rooker, but he is boss of a criminal organization just like Durant was.

When Rooker becomes aware that disfigured superhero Darkman really exists, he hatches a plot that I could easily see Durant coming up with: he wants to synthesize Darkman's enhanced strength so he can create a team of super strong enforcers to help him take over the city. To accomplish this, he has his mistress Dr. Bridget Thorne (Darlanne Fluegel) track down Darkman / Dr. Peyton Westlake (Arnold Vosloo, returning from part 2) at his subway lair, where she tells him that she was one of the doctors who helped save his life after he was attacked by Durant and his goons in the first film. Now she wants to help him. Apparently the character truly was one of the doctors who worked on him, which makes me wonder if Fluegel's Thorne is supposed to be a recast of the unnamed doctor played by an uncredited Jenny Agutter in the original movie.

Thorne tells Peyton he can use her lab to continue his experiments in creating synthetic skin and she will repair his nerve damage. He takes the bait, and while working in Thorne's lab he has a breakthrough in his work. At long last, he's able to make a batch of skin that will last permanently rather than dissolving after 99 minutes. Then Rooker and Thorne pull the rug out from under him and reveal their true intentions.

Thorne did indeed make it so that Darkman can feel pain again, but she has put an implant inside his neck so she controls the pain he feels with a special device. Through the use of this device, Rooker and Thorne are able to make Darkman their captive. Through samples taken from his adrenal glands, Thorne is able to create a new drug that "makes steroids look like rat piss". She plans to sell this drug to athletes, but first she uses it to create Rooker's super soldiers.

This is a cool idea in theory, because it would give Darkman some adversaries who are actually a physical match for himself. And he doesn't just have to deal with one of these "evil Darkman" lackeys, he has to take down four of them... Unfortunately, these guys are a total disappointment.

What really sets Rooker apart from Durant more than anything is that he has a wife, Roxann Dawson as Angela, and a young daughter, Alicia Panetta as Jenny. After Darkman escapes from Rooker's clutches, as we always knew he would, and gets back to his old tricks of wearing masks and mimicking voices to bring down Rooker and his criminal enterprise, he ends up interacting with Angela and Jenny while in disguise as Rooker. Playing husband and father, Peyton starts to fall for Angela and begins to care for Jenny. And they find that "Rooker" is suddenly being better to them than he has in a long time All of this throws a wrench into Peyton's efforts to destroy the man.

Directed by part 2's Bradford May and written by Michael Colleary (Death Wish V: The Face of Death) and Mike Werb, a duo who would go on to write such things as Face/Off and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider together, Darkman III: Die Darkman Die not only  has an awesome subtitle, it's also a much better film than Darkman II was. From my experience, it's been tougher to find over the years than The Return of Durant was, which is a shame. It has a better, more interesting plot and a better script. I even thought that some of the action was better than the action seen in the second film, despite the super goons not living up to their potential.

Die Darkman Die wraps up in a way that leaves things wide open for a sequel, ending with Darkman walking off into the night while while we hear him say in a voiceover "I continued my journeys alone, into the darkness." There could have been more cinematic adventures for Darkman, but instead the franchise has been dormant for twenty years. With such a superhero movie boom going on over the last couple decades, I'm kind of shocked that we've never seen Darkman return to the screen in some way. I'd gladly follow him on more journeys through the darkness if Universal were ever to see fit to make another movie.

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