Many a monster has left his imprint on Sam Raimi's "Darkman," a fiendishly stylish journey that links the classics of transfiguration to the terrors of our times. There are traces of the Fly and the Mummy, of the Hulk and the Beast. They haunt the movie's creepy nooks and shadowed alleys, like invisible mentors to Raimi's new-age phantom, a horribly disfigured and homeless victim of medical technology and uncommon greed.
Liam Neeson stars as handsome, gentle Dr. Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist who is on the verge of making synthetic skin, an advance that allows him poetic justice when vicious hit men leave him for dead in the ashes of his lab. Burned and mangled beyond recognition, he winds up in a city hospital where, to spare him needless pain, the doctors snip a vital nerve. Among the procedure's side effects is superhuman strength, coupled with uncontrollable rage.
And so the phoenix rises. A blackened and crippled superman obsessed with revenge, Darkman is no longer Peyton, though he makes a pitiable attempt to return to what he was. He resurrects his lab, a jury-rigged affair in an abandoned factory, and goes about re-creating the synthetic skin (flawless except it disintegrates after 100 minutes in the light). Wearing a mask of his former face, Darkman touchingly attempts a reunion with his girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), who believes him dead.
A go-getting attorney, Julie brought this fate upon Peyton when she mistakenly left an incriminating file in his laboratory. Pale with guilt and grief, she welcomes him back, if only for 100 minutes at a time. Like Beauty, she is not afraid of her beast, whom she still believes to be Peyton inside.
But Raimi is exploring the notion that violence creates not only external pain but inner ugliness. Peyton is lost, as the civilization around him is lost in cruelty and avarice. Roaring with terrible pathos and understandable rage, Neeson's Darkman has the grandeur of opera about him as he moves through the steaming streets of this murky Gotham seeking out and, one by one, destroying his tormentors. And ultimately, the audience's patience. What weakens this tale is the escalating violence.
Raimi, who made a name for himself chopping up teens in the cult film "The Evil Dead" and its sequel, is more restrained here. But that's compared with no restraint whatsoever. In the first seconds, he splatters the screen with bits and pieces of rival real estate gangs. There's the usual sort of mayhem when it comes to the gunplay, but when it comes to the bits and pieces, ouch. Durant, a sadistic hit man who is meaner than botulism, gets things rolling by clipping off an enemy's fingers with a cigar trimmer. Larry Drake, best known for his role as "L.A. Law's" gentle retarded office clerk, could hardly be crueler as Durant. It is a dual role of a kind for Drake and several of the other hit men, whose faces the Darkman replicates and wears while he methodically and gruesomely gets even.
The tale's true grotesque, however, is a dashing tycoon sleekly played by Australian import Colin Friels. Ensconced in his Trumpian tower, this smooth operator is more than ready to comfort Julie, his stricken attorney, once he believes that Peyton is destroyed. It's a plot development that closely parallels the goings-on in "Ghost" and, for that matter, "Always." The dead lover hovers protectively while the guilty party puts the moves on the beloved.
McDormand, who won an Oscar nomination for her work in "Mississippi Burning," is quite wonderful as Julie, a corporate lawyer whose humanity is released through her lover's ordeal. It's another damsel role, but McDormand is so full of steel and grace, she brings a special anguish to Julie's character.
The story concocted by Raimi was scripted by Chuck Pfarrer, rewritten by Raimi and his brother Ivan and finally completed by identical twins Daniel and Joshua Goldin. A crowd at the typewriter usually spells disaster, but "Darkman" is a consistently intriguing vision and a richly Gothic one. There's moral menace lurking in the misty night and the skeletons of naked skyscrapers.
"Darkman," as unnerving as a gargoyle, is a classic nightmare, elegant and sumptuous, everything "Batman" should have been. But we're numbed after a while, as we are by the grotesquerie of the nightly news. Then again, maybe that's Raimi's intention. His work is beautiful in its scary way, and never only skin deep.