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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Darkman’: the Ultimate Comic-Book Universe

His face is a flayed-flesh ruin of scars and burns; his body a wraith of torment. He masks his pain in bandages, fedora and a great swirling trench coat. He is the hero of “Darkman” (citywide), a horribly disfigured scientist, changing personas at will, while tracking down the criminal vermin who destroyed his life . . . and, though he didn’t originate in one, as dreamed up by director/co-writer Sam Raimi and acted by Liam Neeson, he is comic book to the core: a smidgen of “The Spirit,” a bit of Batman, and gobs of the non-comic “Phantom of the Opera.”

In the recent flurry of comics-derived movies, “Darkman” may not be the most popular. But, in some ways, it’s the best: the only one that successfully captures the graphic look, rhythm and style of the super-hero books. More than “Batman” or “Dick Tracy,” it’s a real fusion: a movie-comic.

Basically “Darkman” is an “origin” tale, ‘60s Marvel Comics style. In it, Neeson’s Peyton Westlake is a scientist experimenting with artificial flesh. When his girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand) uncovers a payoff scandal that may ruin her boss, developer Strack (Colin Friels), Peyton is caught in the cross-fire--hacked, stabbed, burned in a vat and blown sky high by the sordid thugs who work for perfidious mobster Durant (Larry Drake, a stunning villain).

Working with this formula stuff, Raimi and his technicians get the wacko style, the parodied biff!-bop! action. Their frames look like comic-book panels: tilted, skewed, using color with the same garish, tongue-in-cheek intensity.

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Westlake’s lab is a shadow-drenched, twisted-wreck grotto, filled with electric current snappers and burbling gases. Villains are hurled through windows and crunch through car roofs. One heavy chops off his victim’s fingers with a cigar cutter; another dances on steel girders at the top of an unfinished skyscraper. In the movie’s showpiece scene--a frantic helicopter chase with Darkman swinging in mid-air on a grappling hook under a hail of automatic gunfire--the technicians have a blistering field day.

Despite its torrid pace, the movie never really loses its sense of fun. Perhaps that’s what differentiates it from the brutal Stallone/Schwarzenegger revenge romps of the ‘80s. Even though it’s shot on real city streets, “Darkman” somehow stays in a comic-book universe: a world of satire and swoony self-caricature.

Raimi, who started in low-budget horror, collaborating with writers Joel and Ethan Coen on the 1983 gore classic “The Evil Dead,” loves to dramatize the mechanics of moviemaking. He loves wild angles, grotesque caricature, super-trick shots and allusions to other movies.

His actors give amusingly overdone performances: playing traumatized determination (Neeson), stalwart faith (McDormand), unctuous opportunism (Friels) and cold-blooded sadism (Drake) with the shallowly hypnotic fullness of a De Chirico landscape. Some of the imagery suggests surrealism. The moment when identical Durants, with faces like hyperthyroid flesh-balloons, stare at each other in separate revolving door compartments, is as haunting as Salvador Dali’s melting watches.

It won’t do to overpraise “Darkman,” (rated R for extreme violence, language and sex). Beyond its gaudy visuals, it’s not rich. It stalls after the massive helicopter chase paroxysm; there’s not not enough emotional oomph at the climax. But what many American movies do well these days--action, violence, hell-for-leather street spectacle--"Darkman” does better. That may be praise enough.

‘DARKMAN’

A Universal Pictures release. Producer Robert Tapert. Director Sam Raimi. Script Chuck Pfarrer, Daniel & Joshua Goldin, Ivan & Sam Raimi. Camera Bill Pope. Production design Randy Ser. Supervising editors Bud & Scott Smith. Editor David Stiven. Music Danny Elfman. Costume design Grania Preston. With Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Colin Friels, Larry Drake, Nelson Mashita.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

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MPAA rating: R (extreme violence, language, sex).


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