It’s hard for me to believe that Darkman comes from a time when Sam Raimi was fresh off directing Evil Dead 2 and Liam Neeson was a little known Irish actor. A lot has changed since then, but a true classic can stand the test of time, and although I was very young when I first saw this movie, I remember it being very unique. Of course my perspective on films has blossomed since the time I was watching Rugrats, and it has literally been that long since I’ve seen Darkman. Nonetheless I’m pleased to finally get the chance to watch this Liam Neeson classic, and in HD to boot.
Darkman was hardly what I remembered it, but not in a bad way. I can understand it better now, and see there is more depth to it than I remember. It tells the story of scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, Star Wars Episode I : The Phantom Menace) who is developing a synthetic skin that would allow burn victims to appear normal. That’s pretty handy considering Mr. Westlake is about to be hideously disfigured, but I’ll overlook that. Anyways, there is a flaw with the skin; it only lasts for slightly over 90 minutes before it disintegrates in the sun. In the dark it will stay intact. This all comes into play later, but in the meantime Westlake’s girlfriend and attorney Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand, Fargo) has found evidence incriminating a local developer and a mobster. This leads to Westlakes lab being blown up, with him in it. The Darkman is now born, the disfigured Westlake undergoes surgery that severs his nerves and his ability to feel anything, along with an overactive adrenal gland, and you got a pretty pissed off halfway superhero. He escapes from the hospital and hopes to rebuild his relationship with Hastings, and get his vigilante justice on those responsible for making him the way he is.
Darkman is classic movie about a regular guy pushed into the extreme, you’re regular vigilante. Only Darkman isn’t a typical Dirty Harry there’s some pretty intense comic book style angles to his character, but at the same time keeping him realistic and easy to identify with.
The Darkman has some cool features like the inability to sense pain, increased strength due to adrenaline overloads, but what I liked most was his ability to observe. It made me think of the character as more human, lurking in the shadows using his brains to observe his enemies and later masquerade as them with his ability to construct artificial skins. But really what all this led to was some cool action sequences and an identifiable character, and no he didn’t tote a .44 like Dirty Harry or dress as a bat, this vigilante was more in the tradition of The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on speed of course.
At the end of the day, Darkman is a solid watch, and a classic mix of tragic love stories and vigilantism. For those of you who haven’t seen this one yet, I recommend you do, but don’t expect over the top action and constant fight scenes. While there is action it isn’t in the style of Batman, our “superhero” is just like you and me, except with a hideously scarred face and an extremely bad temper.
Presented in 1080p 1.85:1 aspect ratio and encoded in VC-1 Darkman comes to HDDVD with a massive upgrade over its DVD edition, but how does it stack up to other high def releases from the 90’s? First the bad, as some of you know Darkman was released on a relatively small budget and in an era of CGI’s early beginnings. As such, the use of blue screen is so blatantly obvious, often looking much lower in resolution than the rest of the film. This goes for all the special effects used in the film as well, often making the actors look very soft in the process, think Vaseline smudged on the lens. As for the print, well I must say it does look cleaned up, but the often distracting speckling on screen was disappointing to see.
Ok so that sounds pretty bad I imagine, but as much as I complained about the transfer it still leaves me satisfied. There are many scenes, such as the one in China town that look extremely sharp and detailed. It is shots like these that make the film look like it was shot within the last five years. Colors are extremely crisp, reds especially look vibrant and pop right off the screen. Details can be seen crystal clear, especially the hideously burned face of the Darkman. As I said before these scenes alone made up for a lot of the problems found in the transfer. Inconsistencies aside Darkman still delivers a good sometimes great looking transfer, fans will no doubt be pleased with the overall look.
Universal has included a 5.1 Dolby Digital as well as a surprising TrueHD track. Both tracks handle the material well, but the TrueHD track provides a richer listening experience. The opening sequence which involves a massive gunfight between two rival gangs really sounded great. Although the action sequences lack the punch delivered by say a recent blockbuster like Transformers it still delivers the goods. Dialogue and bullets meshed together perfectly with no apparently balancing issues. Liam Nesson’s menacing voice once he becomes Darkman sounds great, with deep rich bass and impressive use of rear surround.
The sound quality itself also sounded quite clear, something I did not expect when I first popped this in. Bass levels were somewhat low for most of the film, but when used it oozed out with depth. Some of the sounds effects and musical scores sound like they come straight from the eighties, maybe that was the Directors intent, but either way they are the weakest sounding part of the track.
Universal did a much more consistent job with the films audio track. Not only does the standard Dolby Digital track sound good, but the inclusion of an impressive TrueHD track is the cherry that tops a great sounding package.
Universal continues their erratic trend of including extra features on HD DVD releases. Unfortunately for fans of Darkman, it falls into the category of NO features of any kind.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with Darkman, it has a good story and some really unique elements that make it a classic. If you haven’t seen it already you should, but for those of you that already know you like it, I’m happy to announce this HD DVD release is quite pretty. The audio and video transfers are great, but the lack of any special features may stop some blind buyers. It’s a no-brainer and still great buy for fans of the movie however.