Sam Raimi is one of my favorite filmmakers, and if you ask me, “Darkman” is his masterpiece. It ain’t as funny and over the top as his “Evil Dead” trilogy, but it’s clever, intense and surprisingly affecting. It proves that Raimi is as good a director when it comes to psychological stuff that we know he is with action sequences.

The film stars Liam Neeson as a scientist with great intelligence but not much luck. He’s discovered a way to create artificial human skin and mold it to look like any face or body part, but the problem is that the substance self-destructs after 99 minutes. Things get way shittier when Neeson comes across compromising papers about his girlfriend (Frances McDormand)’s boss, a greedy businessman who’s financing some big construction project with the help of cruel mobster Durant (Larry Drake) who, by the way, is an exquisite villain with his cigar cutter and all. Anyhow, Neeson is brutally beaten and left for dead by these thugs, but he survives and, from the depths of darkness, he seeks revenge. Deformed and rage-fueled, he’ll get even with the men who ruined his life by wearing their own faces and turning them against one another… “The Phantom of the Opera” meets “The Count of Monte-Cristo”?

“Darkman” is as much of a tragedy as it is a pulpy thriller. What could have been a B-movie (and still remains, in a good way) is elevated by a clever screenplay, a top-notch cast and superb direction from Raimi. The photography and camerawork are always inventive; many scenes have been seen before, but never this way. Raimi really knows how to craft breathtaking sequences, whatever they’re about. There’s a lot of scenes about Neeson losing it and going crazy, crawling half-dead in alleys, then there are moments of sheer joy and black humor in which he finally setlles the score with Durant and his men. There’s also an absolutely riveting rooftop chase packed with explosions, and it makes you realize what a hidden gem Raimi truly is. Gee, if Hollywood only knew that the guy existed, who knows what he’d make of a big action flick à la Bruckheimer!

Raimi also gets brilliant performances from his cast, especially Neeson, who’s brilliant in the title role. His performance, a calculated balance of raging insanity and profound sadness, is highly enjoyable and unusually rich, considering the genre. The score is also very good. It was composed by Danny Elfman, the guy who does the music for most of Raimi and Tim Burton’s films.

“Darkman” is great on many levels: every scene works perfectly, whether it’s dramatic, humorous or thrilling. I like to call it the best comic book movie ever made, even though it’s based on an original story from Raimi, because it has the visual style, arch storytelling and colorful characters you usually get from comics. “Darkman” is one of those not-all-that-well-known flicks that I would recommend to anyone who really loves movies.

DARKMAN II: The Return of Durant
How do you make a sequel to “Darkman” with no Sam Raimi and no Liam Neeson? Easy, you bring back the enjoyably evil villain played by Larry Drake, even though the motherfucker died when his helicopter blew up at the end of the first film. Sounds stupid, I know, but it kinda works in the context of this comic book universe. After all, Darkman himself survived a huge-ass explosion that had everyone believing he’d been vaporized. Now played by Arnold Voosloo, the disfigured scientist, his revenge complete, is now a vigilante, stopping random criminals in the streets and confiscating their loot to finance his research, which he now conducts in an underground lair (the Darkcave?). And then his old enemy Durant shows up, seemingly back from the dead… A great sequel this is not, even though Darkman remains a fascinating figure. In my review of the original, I compared him to the Phantom of the Opera and the Count of Monte Cristo, to which I should add a touch of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, especially in this sequel, a good helping of Batman. And Durant, man, Durant’s a boo. But poor writing, flat direction and hammy acting mar the movie, which is ultimately passable at best, if for the amusement of how the characters keep angrily yelling each other’s name. “DURAAAAAAAAANT!”

DARKMAN III: Die Darkman Die

This further sequel is still nowhere near as brilliant as the original, but you have to give it points for that hilariously pulpy title. So now that Durant’s dead (again), who is it who wants to kill Darkman? Why, it’s Jeff Fahey as a steroids trafficker who’s fascinated by this mysterious figure who apparently has the strength of ten men. Furthermore, in textbook third-of-a-trilogy style, this film goes back to Darkman’s origin and reorients it somewhat, specifically the part where doctors severed his nerves so he wouldn’t feel pain, which had the side effect of his body overcompensating for the sensorial loss by creating unusually high levels of adrenaline, hence the rage, psychotic episodes and, yes, the strength of ten men. Fahey’s villain makes for a worthy enough successor to Durant, but I’m not sure about the decision to devote so much screen time to how he’s a bad husband and father… And with none of the revenge angle left, the whole thing just doesn’t feel as urgent. Really, these sequels are pretty much for completists only.