WHILE EVERYONE else was plundering their comic book stashes for their big-bucks, big-screen adaptations (we've already endured "Superman," "Batman" and "Dick Tracy," and more are on the way), low-budget horror auteur Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi typically opted to tackle the trend in reverse.
With "Darkman," his first mainstream movie, Raimi has created perhaps the most successful live-action comic book to date, by inventing a character. Darkman is slapped together from scraps of other monstrous antiheroes -- the Phantom of the Opera, Swamp Thing, the Invisible Man -- every wronged mutant who has ever been out for vengeance, and he'll surely earn his own comic book.
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Irish actor Liam Neeson) is working on a revolutionary synthetic skin, but the results are so far frustrating -- the skin can only last 100 minutes in daylight before it sizzles and melts into a puddle of goo.
Meanwhile, Westlake's girlfriend Julie, an attorney, is dealing with some shady developers and unwittingly discovers an incriminating document they want. While looking for the paper in Westlake's lab, the racketeers, led by the sadistic Durant, dip the doc in a vat of bubbling acid and blow up his lab.
Westlake is presumed dead, but unbeknownst to Julie, he's been scraped up by a hospital and kept alive as a John Doe in a high-tech experimental burn ward. His treatment leaves him with no sense of pain and uncontrollable rage, and when he escapes and pieces together his skin lab in a spooky abandoned factory, he renames himself Darkman and dedicates his life to Revenge. The explosion has left him virtually faceless, with what's left of his flesh hanging hideously off the bone, so his short-lived synthetic skin comes in handy.
With computer simulation, he can create uncannily accurate facial masks from photographs, and assumes several identities to confuse Durant and his thugs. Darkman can even wear a mask of his own face, which comes in handy when he starts dating Julie again -- she can't quite understand why their dates always clock in at under two hours.
Raimi really should have directed both "Batman" and "Dick Tracy." He has a natural feel for comic book play and pitch -- every frame here could be torn from Marvel or D.C. Comics, or the even more out-there Raw Magazine -- and he succeeds in capturing the style and sensibility of the pulps, while those more expensive projects achieved one or the other.
The Raimi school of acting -- at once flat and overenthusiastic -- is straight from the funny pages, too. He finds reputable performers and encourages them to forget everything they know about good acting: If Neeson's American accent is an uncomfortable fit, all the better -- it makes the character more off-balance. Same with Australian actor Colin Friels as the slime-slick developer that starts dating Julie as soon as Westlake's out of the picture. And "L.A. Law's" Larry Drake plays the fisheyed Durant -- who carries a sort of Ronco Pocket Guillotine to collect souvenir fingers from his victims -- as the coldblooded essence of evil.
The idea of Raimi trying to make a "mainstream" picture is a great gag -- giving this guy more money to play with just means the chase scenes will take place on land and in the air, and the special effects and murders will be even more viscerally disgusting.
Though Raimi seems to be trying to restrain himself, his giddily sick sense of humor still pops out all over the place -- "Darkman" is a frenetic funhouse ride that has you laughing and screaming at the same time.