A well-made minor entry on the grimmer anti-hero side of the comic book film world. (In the comics themselves, anti-heroes have become so commonplace that conventional heroes almost seem to be an endangered species.) Darkman is a guy mutilated by fire whose nerves for sensing physical pain have been cut permanently, and who is subject to episodes of uncontrollable rage combined with adrenalin strength. Yet it’s mainly through brains and careful planning that he tackles his foes, so the propensity to rage is usually a liability that he has to fight against, not an asset. He happens to be a scientist who has a trick for creating temporary artificial skin, enabling him to create extremely convincing disguises... and when the disguise comes off, his burned face is so grisly it seems unlikely that he’s still alive. His fiancee thinks he’s dead at first, and in order to see her again, he has to create a disguise as his former self... And when not trying to find a way to pretend to be physically and mentally normal, he goes up against the crime organization that disfigured him, and whittles away at underlings, working his way up toward the boss, a la Kimball Kinnison. (Who?)
This was directed by Sam Raimi, who later made the hit Spider-Man. In fact, Raimi invented the character; the comic book version came after the movie. Liam Neeson is, of course, a first-tier actor, and his presence here is somewhat surprising. And look who’s playing Mrs. Darkman — it’s the great Frances McDormand. (Not coincidentally, the Coen brothers did some uncredited work on the script.) But, none of these talents is working at full capacity; this is a pretty cheesy little movie in many ways, with too many bogus and improbable action stunts, and a cliché count that’s about 20% over the tolerable limit.
One thing that is cool about Neeson’s performance is that this is the only superhero story where the good guy’s outsider/freak status is emphasized with very unheroic-sounding wheezes and drooly sounds when he’s under stress. His speech sounds in some scenes emphasize his deformed state... but then in others he has no speech impediment at all, even with no lips on his face, so even this one cool bit ends up failing some of the time.
One of the most memorable performances is not by any of the big name stars, but by Larry Drake as the film’s main antagonist, Durant. This is a seriously bad and scary villain, and his presence is one area where this minor film definitely punches above its weight.