Darkman is a thrillingly demented pop spectacular: a grade-B movie made by a grade-A lunatic. Sam Raimi, who directed the two Evil Dead films, is not what you’d call a seamless storyteller. He directs like a violent jack-in-the-box. Darkman is as much a live-action comic strip as Dick Tracy was, only this one has the mad urgency — the hyperkinetic visual and narrative leaps — that people gorge themselves on comics for.
A scientist, Peyton Westlake (played by Irish-born Liam Neeson, speaking in a fake American accent that makes him sound dubbed), has his face dunked in acid by a gang of mobsters. Left for dead, he crawls back to his bombed-out laboratory and retrieves the equipment necessary for his latest experiment: a synthetic skin that can be molded into any shape. He can wear it over his own wrecked face and look as good as new, or he can disguise himself as anyone else (including his enemies). There’s one catch: In daylight, each new batch of skin disintegrates after only 98 minutes.
Raimi, a real sick joker, jams together the most masochistic elements of The Phantom of the Opera, Batman, Eyes Without a Face, The Toxic Avenger, the 1958 version of The Fly and what-have-you. Darkman is both a spoof and not a spoof: Everything in it is so thoroughly overwrought — even the brain-dead dialogue is delivered with the earnestness of a Wagnerian libretto — that the absurdist revenge plot becomes just another element in Raimi’s pop extravagance.
The movie is full of jaunty, Grand Guignol touches (the main gangster enjoys snapping and collecting fingers), but Raimi’s images also have a spectral, kinetic beauty. That’s especially true in the last half hour, when he stages a bravura helicopter chase and a thrilling finale atop skyscraper girders. Along the way, there are visual jokes that are almost brain-teasing in their slapstick literalness. I especially liked the one in which Darkman impersonates a fat, baby-faced villain (Larry Drake) and the two start spinning around each other in a revolving door. Raimi probably doesn’t have it in him to do a straight movie, but he’s a true original — a gonzo prankster from hell. B