A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
By Zak Attack
Why Did I Watch This?
Because it’s Neeson Season, of course! I’ll admit that Liam Neeson didn’t return for the sequels but he was in the superb original film directed by Sam Raimi. Also, it’s possible he actually is in it. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die reuses some scenes from the first film, presumably to seem more action-packed. So the movie might contain some footage of our good buddy Liam… or at least his stunt double.
I have to admit, the Netflixing Under the Influence title is a bit of a fake moniker for this one. This wasn’t streaming and the dvd didn’t come through a red envelope. I’d recently bought the entire Darkman trilogy on Amazon for about $7.50. However, it still was technically on my Queue. Due to my obsessive Netflix habit I still keep owned, yet unwatched movies listed until after I watch them. You know, so just in case I lose my dvd collection in a fire, I won’t forget to watch the seminal Darkman III: Die Darkman Die one day in the future.
What I can tell you is that at the time of watching it, this movie was at #3,623. Netflix thought I would give it 2.1 stars.
How Did I Watch It?
Watched while drinking some regular ol’ cans of Natty Light. This heavy lager has some strong vanilla notes with an aromatic, malty finish. Haha! Just kidding. It tastes like water.
I did rewatch Darkman and Darkman II: The Return of Durant right before this to refresh my memory. I’m a huge fan of the first one and remembered mildly liking the sequel when it first came out in 1995. I was wrong, the sequel sucked.
What Did I Watch?
In case you are unfamiliar with the franchise, Peyton Westlake (originally Liam Neeson, but Arnold Vosloo for our purposes) was a scientist who was blown up by some gangsters and had all his skin (including most of his face) burned off in the explosion. When his unidentified, comatose body was discovered, doctors severed select nerves in his spine so he would no longer feel the excruciating pain. Side effects of the lack of stimulation are uncontrollable emotional outbursts as well as unchecked releases of adrenaline which result in augmented strength. Fortunately, Westlake had been working to perfect a synthetic skin for medical grafting in burn victims. Unfortunately, it is unstable and only lasts for ninety-nine minutes in the light, hence the name Darkman. He uses this technology to create lifelike masks and infiltrate gangs in order to take down organized crime from the inside. A standout scene in the original film that kind of sums up the type of man he’s become is when he goes off on a carnival barker for trying to cheat him out of a stuffed elephant.
Instead of taking cues from the first film, Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (German translation: Darkman III: The Darkman The) is about a completely inept superhero who keeps fighting crime despite having no clear motivation. Yes, it’s nice to clean up the streets, but in earlier entries Darkman was obsessively focused on revenge and fixing his skin. There is no “with great power” moment that makes the turn to full-fledged superhero believable. And boy is he bad at it. In the opening scene where he infiltrates a drug deal by the docks, Darkman blows his cover immediately by rudely bumping shoulders with the crime boss and not responding to the name of the guy he’s pretending to be. Having Westlake put so little effort into being an effective superhero just makes him uninteresting.
Now that Durant has died (again), we’re introduced to villainous businessman Peter Rooker (Jeff Fahey), who is hellbent on acquiring experimental steroids so he can create massively strong henchmen and rule the city’s crime world. Meanwhile, Darkman is still struggling with making skin that works in the light and meets up with Dr. Bridget Thorne (the wonderfully named Darlanne Fluegel) who promises to help him. Instead she is in cahoots with Rooker, who has her plant a device in Westlake’s brain that can force him to do her bidding. The concept of an evil Darkman doing things against his will is at least somewhat intriguing and promises for some fun conflict later on. Too bad he removes the brain implant literally seven minutes after Thorne puts it in. No joke, it has nothing to do with the story whatsoever.
Instead they just keep him chained up until they can figure out a way to unlock the secret to his super-strength. I know I’m talking about movies as inane as direct-to-video Darkman sequels, but where is the continuity? It is clearly established that his strength comes from strange surges of adrenaline due to his lack of pain impulses. However, the villains in the movie are focused on tapping into Westlake’s adrenal gland to create super strong henchmen. Everyone has an adrenal gland! What does his particular adrenal gland have to do with anything? it’s not like they’re ignorant. Dr. Thorne knows the details of the procedure performed on him, because she admits to being on the very team that saved his life. This is the same team of doctors that provided the exposition which outlined his powers in the first movie.
When Westlake finally escapes, he proceeds to put on Rooker’s face and do a spot-on voice impression (despite not having lips, but that’s another story). The movie then spends a good portion of the second act having Westlake romance the gangster’s unhappy wife Angela (Star Trek: Voyager‘s Roxann Dawson) and daughter. It is an attempt to create stakes for the climax, but it’s unearned and completely boring. The only entertaining moment of the entire emotionless “relationship” is when he goes to Rooker’s daughter’s play (disguised as Rooker) and watches a hilarious kid’s version of Beauty and the Beast. Unfortunately, it’s hamfistedly shown as an analogy for Westlake and Angela’s relationship. The shoehorned literary allusions were also present in Darkman II: The Return of Durant, which made several on-the-nose mentions of Phantom of the Opera. I can’t wait for the sequels Darkman IV: The Darkman of Notre Dame and Darkman V: Dr. Westlake & Mr. Darkman.
Westlake repeatedly attempts to get back the floppy disc that contains his groundbreaking skin formula, because in addition to putting in that brain implant, Rooker stole it in order to get him to cooperate. If you’re curious as to why a doctor wouldn’t make a copy of his all-important research, he actually explains it when Dr. Thorne asks him that very question:
Westlake (sarcastically): “Why don’t I just pass it out on a street corner and let others take a crack at my work?!”
Wait, what?! That’s a fantastic idea. Why wouldn’t you want the maximum number of people working on saving you from your depressive plight? Your major character trait is being obsessed with looking normal in the daytime. Are you still seriously concerned with intellectual property? You literally live in a sewer and look like the villain from a Resident Evil game. Come on, Peyton! Get yourself cured so you can stop fooling around with Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres and get back with Frances McDormand like you promised at the end of the first movie.The villain isn’t much smarter though. After Rooker steals the skin formula, he simply just throws it in a safe because he wants to unlock the “real” power of using adrenaline to make his people pretty strong. Why would anyone be more intrigued by “strong” henchmen instead of “henchmen that can realistically look like anyone at any time”? Dude, if you want strong guys, just have them hit the gym. This artificial skin stuff is actually ground-breaking technology. You can get into any bank account or safety deposit box before anyone knows a crime’s been committed. You can pretend to be the President of the United States for Christ’s sake!
The major fun moment of Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (I’ll never get tired of typing that out) includes an incredibly strange dream sequence utilizing humorously out of place religious iconography. Rooker’s wife, Angela, appears in a pose reminiscent of the Virgin Mary stepping on the evil serpent of the Garden of Eden. The serpent, however, wraps around her menacingly and morphs its head into Jeff Fahey’s in a look that seems to ape the staircase scene from Beetlejuice as directed by Ken Russell. The result is this odd moment of pretension that makes you do a double take.
As funny as that was, however, Raimi at least earned the weird moments in his film. The serpent from Darkman III: Die Darkman Die is not earned In fact, the movie is so unambitious that this attempt at a touch of artistry is strange, annoying, and fascinating all at the same time. The original Darkman is the closest thing the silver screen has to a pure live-action comic book. Even more than Burton’s (or even Adam West’s) hyperbolic Batman, Ang Lee’s misguidedly stylistic Hulk, or Raimi’s own energetic Spider-Man films, the Liam Neeson vehicle has a kinetic weirdness that fits the material perfectly. It’s equal parts dark and campy in a way that only Raimi can pull-off. The old school theatricality to the story and performances are electrified by his showy camera work and a reliable score from Danny Elfman. Director Bradford May’s sequels attempt to replicate this energy in some ways with mixed results. He kept the dutch angle close-ups, dramatic zooms, and colorful rage sequences, but doesn’t have quite the mastery of the frame that Raimi does. From a story perspective, Darkman II at least includes over-the-top plasma cannons and a scene-chewing performance from Larry Drake. The third entry, however, doesn’t quite sell the whole thing through.
Not to say we’re completely absent some ridiculous and fun moments. These are all things that actually happen:
- One of the bad guys repeatedly calls Darkman “french fry” as some sort of taunting nickname
- Vosloo must have negotiated some minimum face-time clause, because he wears his own skin a lot. He often wears it underneath a completely different mask. So every time he’s discovered they rip off one to reveal Westlake like at the end of a Scooby Doo episode
- At one point, a bazooka round gets outrun by a train
- As if to refute Rooker’s love of steroids, Westlake tells him: “You always talk about strength… but a strong man loves his wife!” Sick burn, Darkman, but I don’t know if he cares about that when he can bench press a truck.
- In that vein, the socially conscious anti-drug message lacks subtlety to the point that I couldn’t stop thinking of that one episode of Dinosaurs where Robbie starts taking steroids
It’s hinted at above, but there is a specific lack of energy in the way Darkman III: Die Darkman Die cribs from the original film. A great example is an early death of one of Rooker’s henchmen. He chases Westlake into the sewer, who proceeds to turn around and removes his facial bandages. His twisted visage so frightens the guy that he sprints away and pops out of a manhole cover. The guy notices cars coming and ducks, but then dangerously pops his head back up only to be decapitated. Compare that to a similar scene in Darkman where Liam Neeson actively sticks Ted Raimi’s head out of the manhole and causes him to get run over by a car. It makes sense (Ted Raimi isn’t sticking his face into oncoming traffic of his own accord), is filmed dynamically, and suggests visceral yet cartoonish violence. The scene in the third movie just has a guy pop out all willy-nilly and then his head rolls down the street.
In fact, May’s filmmaking style ignores entire tenets of visual language. When Rooker is able to synthesize the strength formula, the film shows all the henchmen arm-wrestling and punching each other because supposedly that’s what you do when you become super strong. However it simply looks like some meatheads shouting and arm-wrestling with no indication that they’re any stronger than they were before. Why not show them lifting physical objects? Even the kid’s movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze had the intelligence to show that Tokka and Rahzar can bend metal poles and flip over cars. Filmmaking 101, people!
What’s worse is Darkman doesn’t even fight these super strong henchmen! Much like the brain implant, it’s a provocative idea that is immediately thrown away and has no bearing on any future plot elements. May reportedly filmed Darkman II and Darkman III: Die Darkman Die back-to-back in 6 weeks. Here’s an idea: add two weeks to that shooting schedule and make two additional movies. The first is about a gangster who is controlling Darkman to do his bidding. The “evil” applications of the skin technology are rife with possibilities and could make a compelling story. In the second one he fights a bunch of extra powerful henchmen. In this instance, Westlake would rely on his intelligence and undercover ability since his strength is no longer an advantage. Bam! Those are two much more stimulating action/crime movies right there. After that you can put together whatever craptastic idea you had where Darkman romances an unsatisfied mother for no reason.
Was It Worth Watching?
Skip it. There was nothing offensive about it, but Darkman III: Die Darkman Die doesn’t bring much to the table at all. At least Darkman II tried to match the campy, comic book-nature of the original. Even if it did fail, it felt like a noble, if ill-guided attempt. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die apparently has no aspirations of being an interesting film.
Bradford May approached this character with an excessively flat, workman-like approach. He even seems to forget who Darkman truly is. At one point, Rooker taunts Westlake, “What are you going to do? Kill me? You’re not a killer!” But that’s exactly what he is! That’s his whole thing! He’s not just a superhero that hangs out in the dark, he’s also tonally dark. Didn’t you see that scene where he sticks Ted Raimi’s head out from that manhole? He kills people after he beats information out of them. Hell, he killed a guy in this movie! Come on, Jeff Fahey! You’re even the one who found the body!
All images courtesy of Renaissance Pictures