Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)

Anyone who even remotely considers themselves a film buff should by now be well aware of how cinema itself has influenced the output of Quentin Tarantino. His movies are chock full of references and homages to the movies he loves, even if his personal tastes aren't always within the scope of the mainstream. This affection has even led him to make his own movies akin to the ones he enjoys so much, as he's directed a crime drama influenced by blaxploitation movies, tributes to wuxia and samurai movies, and a war movie. And now Tarantino's brought us a full-blown spaghetti western in the form of Django Unchained. Drawing inspiration (and part of its title) from the 1966 Italian movie Django, Django Unchained is one of those movies that absolutely must be seen to be believed. I don't like having to use that clichéd line, but it's the truth. So allow me a few moments to gush over the movie and explain just why I loved it so much.

Our story begins in Texas circa 1858, where Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) ― a former dentist who's since found a calling as a bounty hunter ― is looking for a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). Purchasing Django from his owners in a rather unorthodox fashion, Schultz reveals to Django that he tracked him down because only Django can identify the members of a gang whose bounty Schultz looks to recover.

Schultz successfully claims the bounty with Django's assistance, and is impressed enough with his new friend's abilities that he offers to train Django in the fine art of bounty hunting. Django agrees on the condition that Schultz helps reunite him with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who he was separated from when they were put on the auction block.

After a successful winter, Schultz and Django find a lead on Broomhilda's whereabouts, learning that she was sold to a wealthy plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie has made a name for himself by training his male slaves to fight one another to the death, while the female slaves are forced into prostitution. Schultz and Django formulate a plan that would lead to them buying Broomhilda from him, but their plan may find itself foiled when Candie's butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to notice cracks in their story.

I've been sitting here for a good while trying to come up with a way to properly encapsulate just how awesome Django Unchained is. But these words unfortunately escape me. What I can tell you, however, is that the movie is quite possibly the best movie I've seen all year. You have to see this movie because there's no way that I can do it justice. Whatever I write here doesn't matter, because you should be going to a theater right now to buy yourself a ticket for the next available screening of the movie. (You can come back and read this later if you want. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

From a directorial standpoint, I have no problem calling the movie one of Quentin Tarantino's absolute best efforts. Tarantino's work is masterful, showing a real artistic flair that I felt was very impressive. And when I say "artistic," I mean the movie looks like a genuine piece of art. Shots are composed and scenes are edited in such a way that you'll be blown away by the look of the movie.

Tarantino also crafts the movie in a way that it never really feels like it's almost three hours long. The running time is roughly two hours and 45 minutes, but Tarantino keeps the movie going so fast that you never once notice the length. It has the right kind of energy that it renders such a thing a complete non-factor. If more ultra-long movies could take a hint from Djamgo Unchained, that would be great.

It helps that his screenplay is just as good as his direction. The script is chock full of memorable characters, awesome moments, and cool dialogue. It's practically everything you could possibly hope for from a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. He writes his characters in such a way that even the unrepentantly vile ones draw the viewer in and makes us care about everyone in some form or fashion. The primary characters are all built on strong foundations, allowing them to each make their own indelible mark on the movie as a whole.

And with the way Tarantino has the movie plotted, it's immensely fun to go back and watch how the gears are turning during the story. Not a single moment is wasted or rendered useless; everything contributes to the big picture somehow. If you're like me, you'll watch this movie and be glued to the screen, watching with curious fascination to see just where Tarantino takes us next.

Last but most certainly not least on my list are the actors, all of whom are amazing no matter how big or small their roles are. Among the supporting cast, Don Johnson is a lot of fun in his small role as a plantation owner that looks an awful lot like Colonel Sanders, while Samuel L. Jackson is awesome in his role as Candie's most trusted slave. Jackson's performance alternates between funny and intense, which is helped by the fantastic chemistry he has with Leonardo DiCaprio. Their back-and-forth repartee is so much fun to watch because both actors are at the top of their games here.

And I honestly cannot praise DiCaprio enough. He plays Candie as a horrible yet charismatic villain. He's likable and gentlemanly for much of the movie even as he forces his slaves to beat one another to death for fun, feeds runaways to dogs, and uses that one special racial slur more times than one could count, yet you just cannot turn away. It's a great performance from a great actor, and he very nearly steals the whole movie.

But the honor of the movie's best performance goes to Christoph Waltz, who is just once step ahead of DiCaprio in the "stealing the movie" category. I thought Waltz couldn't top his work in Inglourious Basterds, but he did. He actually did it. Waltz is at his most likable here, making his character an intelligent smooth-talker that's a lot of fun and makes the movie a lot more fun to watch.

And how can I talk about Django Unchaiined without talking about Django himself? Even though he's arguably overshadowed by Waltz and DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx is very cool as the movie's title character. He plays the role with absolute conviction, like his performance would completely make or break the movie, as if its success hinged on every word he says and every move he makes. Foxx's nuanced, layered performance is incredibly convincing; you get the feeling that years of slavery may break his body but never his spirit, and that he would burn the whole world if it meant he could be with his beloved wife again.

If you haven't seen Django Unchained, or if you've instead chosen to see The Hobbit or Les Misérables over the last few weeks, then you're missing out. It's not a movie that will play to everyone's sensibilities, but it is nonetheless worth seeing. I'd actually call it the best Quentin Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction. Sure, the movie has faced some controversy over its repeated use of the "N-word," but that doesn't take a way from the fact that it's an awesome movie. It's a cool experience that's well worth the time and effort to check it out. So I'll give it four and a half stars and proclaim one thing: Spike Lee can suck it.

Final Rating: ****½

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Jingle All The Way (1996)

It's no secret that Arnold Schwarzenegger's fame was built on his starring roles in some of the greatest action movies of all time. But it's also no secret that his occasional forays into comedy have never really turned out very well. They've ranged from either downright awful to no better than mediocre. But then you've got a movie like Jingle All The Way. It's far from the strongest entry on Schwarzenegger's résumé, but it's still oddly fun and charming in its own weird way. And hopefully, I can use this review to figure out why.

Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) is a workaholic mattress salesman who adores his family yet can never seem to make time for them. When he disappoints his young son Jamie (Jake Lloyd) one too many times, Howard vows to make it up to him by finding Jamie the one thing he most wants for Christmas: an action figure of "Turbo-Man," his favorite TV superhero.

Doing so will not be easy, as it is Christmas Eve and Turbo-Man's toys are the hottest items on the market. So popular are they that the demand for them sparks brawls and near-riots at nearly every toy store in the city. As Howard scours the city, he finds himself repeatedly butting heads with Myron Larabee (Sinbad), a rival father similarly hunting for a Turbo-Man figure. They soon become bitter adversaries as the clock to Christmas counts down and Howard is faced with the very real possibility that he'll end up disappointing Jamie again.

I've heard a ton of things about Jingle All The Way over the last decade or so, primarily that it's the goofiest Schwarzenegger movie since Batman & Robin. I mean, one of the most notable things about the movie is the running gag on Late Night with Conan O'Brien that proclaimed the movie to be an "all-time holiday classic." But I'd never actually dared to see it until a few days ago. And I'm surprised at just how truly silly Jingle All The Way actually is. Not only are some of the jokes among the corniest ever captured on film, but the movie isn't even sure what exactly it wants to be. But I'll get into that in a second.

The movie was directed by Brian Levant, whose filmmaking career hasn't given us any remotely good movies. "So bad they're good," sure, but legitimately good? Far from it. But as awful as many of Levant's movies are, his work on Jingle All The Way actually isn't too bad at all. There are some spots where it feels like generic mid-'90s family movie fodder, but Levant actually succeeds in making much of the movie a lot of fun. There's some really good cinematography, and the movie generally feels to be at least half a step above the quality of other, similar movies.

Levant does stumble here and there, though the only truly distracting flaw I could find was the very hokey, fake-looking special effect work during the climax at the Christmas parade. And it also doesn't help that Levant is working from an incredibly lame script written by Randy Kornfeld (and rewritten by an uncredited Chris Columbus). The script does have a few moments that I'll admit I thought were really funny, but for the most part, the humor is so banal that it might only elicit awkward chuckles at best.

The primary problem I had with the script, though, is that it wasn't sure what kind of movie it wanted to be. It tries balancing between a lighthearted family-friendly comedy and a satire of ultra-consumerism at its yuletide worst, but it succeeds at neither. Had the movie picked one side or the other, it might have worked. But the script's attempts to have its cake and eat it too are sadly fruitless. I actually would have enjoyed the movie had it been a dark comedy lampooning the psychotic frenzies over "fad toys" like the Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo, but instead, we ended up with what we got instead.

But let's keep this train rolling by moving onward to the cast. There's a number of reasons why Arnold Schwarzenegger is more recognizable as an action star than as a comedian, and Jingle All The Way is one of them. He's got his funny moments here, I'll give him that, but a comedy simply doesn't seem like it's the right vehicle for him. Far be it for me to say an actor should be typecast, but there are just some who do so good a job at filling a certain niche that they should stick with it. Schwarzenegger can work in comedies as long as they play to his strengths (which is why I enjoy Last Action Hero even in spite of its flaws), but Jingle All The Way unfortunately doesn't do that.

Meanwhile, Jake Lloyd ― who would go on to play young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace before disappearing from Hollywood entirely ― fails to impress, while Rita Wilson is simply not good at all. I know the movie isn't much, but you'd think Wilson would have at least made an effort. But nope, no effort whatsoever. At least Sinbad put forth some effort as the closest thing the movie has to an antagonist. He's cheesy and over-the-top a lot of the time, but much like Schwarzenegger, I thought he had a few moments where he genuinely shined. In a better movie, Sinbad might have knocked it right out of the park.

The movie's best work, however, come from Jim Belushi and the late Phil Hartman. Belushi is a lot of fun in his extended cameo as a mall Santa operating a counterfeit toy ring on the side, while Hartman is awesome as the Langston family's annoying "super-dad" neighbor. He's the most annoying pain in the ass you've ever seen in your life and you want to reach into the movie and smack him, but Hartman plays it with such aplomb and glee that he's really enjoyable too.

Jingle All The Way is far from the "all-time holiday classic" that the characters from Conan O'Brien's old talk show would argue it was, but it isn't insufferably bad either. It's one of those movies that I thought was actually pretty entertaining even though it's very flawed. There's a ton of other Christmas movies I'd recommend watching before this one, but truthfully, you could do a lot worse than Jingle All The Way. So have a merry Christmas, a happy holiday season, and remember: Put that cookie down! Now!

Final Rating: **

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 (2009)

Today is the big day. In the incredibly unlikely chance that the so-called Mayan predictions and those loony conspiracy theorists are correct, the world should be ending at any time now. And if it is ending, then thanks for reading this blog. But if you're one of those people with an abundance of common sense, you're not worried about the Mayan apocalypse at all. The people worried about this are probably the same folks who believed the Rapture was last year and that the Y2K bug would be the end of modern civilization.

And to be totally honest with you, I didn't even know this Mayan doomsday prophesy stuff even existed until the release of the appropriately-titled movie 2012. The movie hit theaters near the end of 2009 and (as far as I can tell, anyway) introduced the mainstream masses to the idea that the end of the world was foreseen by the Mayan calendar. And while I'm fairly certain that that idea is a great big pile of crap, I'm still unsure of how I feel about 2012.

The movie begins in 2009, as American geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers that, due to freak conditions caused by a massive solar flare, Earth's core is superheating. And as a result, the planet will be devastated by an insane amount of natural disasters sooner rather than later. Helmsley rushes this information to the White House, information that President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) shares in secret with other countries so that a contingency plan can be constructed.

We then flash-forward to the year 2012, where we're introduced to Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed sci-fi novelist who's stuck driving limousines for a living. While on a camping trip with his kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) at Yellowstone National Park, Jackson accidentally stumbles onto a cordoned-off site being used by Helmsley and a number of military scientists for a geological survey. He's soon pulled aside by Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), an eccentric crackpot who broadcasts a radio show dedicated to fringe science and conspiracy theories. Charlie explains to Jackson that horrible cataclysms are fast approaching, and that the governments of the world have secretly built massive lifeboats in order to save some of the human race.

Jackson naturally believes Charlie is just a kook at first. But as he and his kids return home to Los Angeles, he quickly realizes that Charlie was right. An unbelievably massive earthquake rocks Los Angeles, and Jackson just barely manages to get his kids, his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), and her new boyfriend (Thomas McCarthy) to safety before the entire state of California collapses into the ocean. They're soon joined by another group of survivors, and thanks to a map given to Jackson by Charlie, they trek to the Himalayas to find the hidden lifeboats. But their path to safety will not be an easy one, as earthquakes and giant tsunamis are wiping out nearly every landmass on the surface of the planet.

I'm actually conflicted about how I should feel about 2012. On one hand, it's got a ton of flaws. Only a handful of actors in the movie make anything resembling a memorable contribution, and the script is just plain awful. The movie does nothing to justify the bloated 157-minute running time, and most of the characters are either dull and boring or just plain unlikable. But on the other hand, the movie boasts some genuinely exciting sequences and a few moments of real drama. There are enough good moments to make 2012 worth watching once, but enough crappy elements to make it worth skipping as well.

The movie was directed by Roland Emmerich, who should know all about destroying global landmarks. He is the filmmaker who brought us Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, after all. And while I may have a problem with the movie's runtime ― two and a half hours is just too long ― I still thought Emmerich did a decent enough job crafting the movie. Say what you will about his body of work, but to Emmerich's credit, he can stage a cinematic disaster with the best of them. For starters, the scene where Jackson and his family haul ass through a crumbling Los Angeles in Jackson's limousine is genuinely exciting, and it just goes on from there.

The only really bad part of Emmerich's direction is that due to the movie's length, it wears itself out by the end. You can only see so many earthquakes, tsunamis, and explosions before you grow a little numb to them. I know that Emmerich was probably trying to build some kind of massive scope with all the worldwide chaos, but there's only so much one can take.

It doesn't help that the movie's screenplay is atrocious. Penned by Emmerich and Harold Kloser, the script falls into the same traps as nearly all of Emmerich's movies. There's no substance to any of the movie's style. The plot is threadbare, and among the metric ton of characters that appear in the movie, very few of them are worth caring about. Emmerich's movies have almost always focused more on spectacle, so I guess he and Kloser figured nobody would care about the characters as long as there was a ton of stuff going on.

And the fact that it's hard to care about the characters means that there's no emotional resonance when someone gets killed off. Even the characters themselves don't seem to care when those close to them die. There are one or two moments where someone is visibly bothered by the news a loved one has died, but outside of that, it's just, "Oh, they died, let's move on." And as banal as the characters are, the audience probably feels the same way.

It's actually pretty hard to care about the actors too. Most of the ensemble cast is either forgettable or simply not given time to shine. There were a few worth mentioning, a few small diamonds in a whole lot of rough. I thought John Cusack was great even though I don't really buy him as the right guy for the role, and I liked Chiwetel Ijiofor despite his character not being written all that well. Danny Glover and Oliver Platt are also really good, but my favorite performance came from Woody Harrelson. He has what seems like less than ten minutes of screen time, but Harrelson is so much fun that I wish Emmerich had found a way to work him into the entire movie.

So all in all, I thought 2012 was just okay. Not good nor bad, but simply there. It's one of those movies that you'll probably watch once, enjoy for a little while, and then forget all about once the credits role. And you're honestly not missing anything if you haven't seen it yet. And thus, I'll give the movie two and a half stars. And you know what? They've re-released Titanic, Star Wars: Episode 1, and some of Pixar's movies in 3D, but not 2012? They could have converted it into 3D and re-released it to coincide with today. This movie would have looked awesome in 3D! It would have still been mediocre, but it would have been an awesome experience.

Final Rating: **½

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

If one thing is true about Quentin Tarantino, it's that he is one of the most unique storytellers in Hollywood. Nobody approaches a movie like Tarantino does. He had a style and a voice that few, if any, are able to duplicate. That's why when Tarantino announced that he would be making a movie about a group of soldiers fighting in World War II, it got people buzzing. They had wanted to see just how he'd make a war movie. The resulting flick, Inglourious Basterds, is a very different look at a war that's been depicted hundred of times.

The year is 1944, and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has recruited eight Jewish commandos who've dedicated themselves to mutilating, killing, and ultimately scalping as many Nazis as possible. Nicknamed "the Basterds" by the Nazis, the group's brutality and viciousness have left even Hitler himself frustrated by the German military's inability to stop them.

The British have learned that the heads of Nazi Germany ― even the big bad Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself ― will be gathering at a small movie theater in Paris for the premiere of Nation's Pride, a propaganda movie celebrating the exploits of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German sniper purported to have killed over sixty Allied soldiers. With everyone in charge in one place, it'd be the easiest opportunity to kill a whole bunch of birds with one stone. To that end, the Basterds are dispatched to infiltrate the premiere with the help of German actress and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

But what they don't know is that someone else is planning to ruin the premiere too. The theater hosting the premiere is owned by a young French Jew named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Lauren), whose family was personally butchered by SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) a few years earlier. Living in Paris under an assumed name, Shosanna is rather perturbed by the fact that Zoller's developed a pretty major crush on her. Annoyance quickly turns to fury when she learns that not only has Zoeller convinced Joseph Goebbels to use the theater she owns to host the premiere of Nation's Pride, but that Landa will be the event's chief of security. Burning with rage, vowing to avenge her family's deaths, and unaware of the efforts of the Basterds, Shosanna formulates her own plan to eliminate the Nazis herself.

Unless you can dig up some obscure propaganda movie from the era, Inglourious Basterds is probably the most unique World War II movie you will ever see. And I doubt that anyone other than Quentin Tarantino could have created such a movie. I honestly don't believe that it's his best movie nor would I call it my personal favorite, but I do think that it's still an absolutely fantastic piece of work that everyone involved should be very proud of.

Even though Inglourious Basterds isn't my favorite Tarantino movie, it's still some of the best evidence regarding how much he's evolved from filmmaker to artist. His directorial efforts here are tremendous, boasting some gorgeous cinematography and a vibe that makes the movie feel bigger than it actually is. It's unfortunate, though, that a flaw or two creep into the movie.

The main flaw I'm referring to is that the movie suffers from the same flaw that plagued the movie Tarantino made before this one, Death Proof. The problem is that Tarantino occasionally seems so enamored with his own dialogue that he can't bear to trim down some scenes before they wear out their welcome. It's particularly bad in the scene in the bar where some undercover Allied soldiers play a party game with a couple of Nazis. It's a fun scene, but the scene honestly lasts twenty minutes before there's any payoff. The whole thing is drawn out to the point that I just wanted it to hurry up and move along.

As far as the screenplay for the movie goes, it's about as verbose as you would expect from Quentin Tarantino. But unlike the previously-mentioned Death Proof, there are very few scenes that don't add something to the movie. The first half of Death Proof was a sluggish bore with practically no forward progress, but with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino constantly keeps the movie going. Practically every scene advances the plot, develops the characters, or provides something crucial to the overall movie. Yes, the script gets a little wordy at times, but it still keeps trucking along and I won't fault it for that.

It also helps that Tarantino's managed to assemble a fantastic cast to bring his movie to life. Brad Pitt is hilariously entertaining as the leader of the Basterds, bringing a sense of joviality to the character even as he has his commandos do things that would probably get them thrown out of the military (for starters). Pitt is a charismatic actor to begin with, which only makes Aldo Raine more fun to watch than if another actor had played the role.

Diane Kruger plays her role with conviction, while Mélanie Laurent does an excellent job conveying her total disgust and contempt for the Nazis that have overrun her theater. Among the other supporting cast, Eli Roth ― yes, the same Eli Roth that brought the world Cabin Fever and Hostel ― is actually really good as one of the Basterds. But every single member of the cast is completely overshadowed by the Oscar-winning performance of Christoph Waltz. Waltz is truly amazing as Hans Landa, playing the character as simultaneously charming and as an utterly reprehensible slimeball. If you haven't seen Inglourious Basterds at any point over the last three years and you need a reason to finally check it out, Waltz should be enough for you to watch the movie. This might sound like hyperbole, but I thought it was one of the best performances of the entire decade.

Before I watched it today in preparation for this review, I hadn't seen Inglourious Basterds since its theatrical run in 2009. Back then, I thought it was okay, but not great. But revisiting it now, I realized the movie is a lot better than I initially thought. The acting is amazing, the direction and writing are fantastic, and the whole package is a great watch. So if you're a fan of World War II movies or Quentin Tarantino and you haven't seen Inglourious Basterds, you're missing out on a great flick. And besides, it'd make a great primer if you're planning to see Django Unchained in two weeks. And I'm totally looking forward to that.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Darkman (1990)

As much as I (and horror fans in general) love the Evil Dead trilogy, I don't think there's much doubt that Sam Raimi's biggest claim to fame is his three movies based on Spider-Man. But Marvel's red and blue web-slinger was not the first superhero Raimi brought to the big screen. His unsuccessful attempts to secure the film rights to Batman and The Shadow at the tail end of the '80s led Raimi to create his own superhero in the form of a movie he titled Darkman. The movie was simply a modest success despite the mostly positive critical reviews, but it's developed a cult following over the years after finding a home on cable and home video. And over two decades since its release, Darkman continues to hold up as a fine movie.

Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant scientist on the verge of the next big medical breakthrough. He's developed a synthetic skin to assist burn victims during their healing process, but due to a flaw in its chemical structure, direct exposure to light causes the skin to dissolve after 99 minutes. But a monkey wrench soon gets thrown into the mix and will forever alter Westlake's life.

His girlfriend, an up-and-coming attorney named Julie (Frances McDormand), has just discovered an incriminating memorandum that connects corrupt real estate developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to a series of illegal business maneuvers involving the mob. And of course, the mob is looking for that memorandum. Ruthless crime lord Robert Durant (Larry Drake) breaks into Westlake's laboratory one night in search of it, and he and his goons completely wreck the place. They badly beat Westlake, leaving him to die as they burn the whole building down.

Believed dead by Durant and Julie, Westlake somehow managed to survive the blaze meant to kill him. It left him, however, horrifically scarred beyond recognition. The doctors who treat him are forced to subject him to a radical new treatment that cuts off his sense of touch and ability to feel pain, but it also causes his brain to overcompensate for these losses. It spurs an adrenal overload that gives him enhanced strength while leaving him mentally unstable and in a state of perpetual rage. Vowing revenge against his enemies, Westlake escapes from the hospital and returns to the burned-out husk of his former laboratory. He rebuilds to the best of his ability and begins using his synthetic skin to create various disguises that allow him to infiltrate Durant's crew and bring them down from the inside.

Nobody will ever put Darkman on the list of the best superhero movies ever made. But there's something about it that makes it inherently fun. The movie has a certain charm to it that makes it really entertaining in spite of its flaws. Okay, yeah, it has a few moments that are weird or kinda dumb. I'll give you that. But Darkman is still totally worth the time and effort to watch.

Sam Raimi was an unproven commodity in regards to mainstream movies, as he had only the cult successes of The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II under his belt at the time. But he proved to be well worth the gamble Universal Studios took on him. His direction is top-notch for the most part, as he approaches it with the kinetic flair that has become his trademark over the years. But Raimi is also guilty of a few weird little things that took me out of the movie, too. There were more than a few shots that were so obviously filmed in front of a green screen that they look hokey and fake, while the scenes where Darkman fully loses his temper ― depicted with harsh camera angles, wild colors, and shots of the firing of synapses in his brain ― are almost too cartoony to work. It didn't feel like those bits really fit with the tone of the rest of the movie. I get what Raimi was trying to do, but these bits (which honestly look like they were stolen from Creepshow) just felt like a bizarre creative choice to me.

But outside of that, Raimi actually made a damn good superhero flick. It delicately balances between fun, lighthearted adventure and a dark antihero story while staying engaging and entertaining throughout. The action sequences are especially good despite that bad green screen work I mentioned earlier, each of them being exciting in their own ways. The final showdown in the third act between Darkman and Durant's gang in particular is totally awesome, in large part to the way Raimi constructs it, but sadly, not everything could be that good.

I'm referring specifically to the script, credited to Raimi, his brother Ivan, Chuck Pearrer, and siblings Daniel and Joshua Goldin. To tell you the truth, the script isn't anything special. It's your typical '90s superhero origin story. If you've seen movies like Spawn or Steel, you know what kind of movie I'm talking about. And I don't know why they had to credit five different writers. Did they just cobble together the best bits and pieces from all the different drafts of the script that were written and slap everybody's namkes on the final product? (Considering how Hollywood works, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the truth.)

You get the feeling that there were too many chefs in the kitchen in regards to the script, as if Universal wanted a certain kind of movie and had some other writers do a little work on the script that the Raimi brothers had turned in. And because of that, the story doesn't seem quite as fluid as it probably could have been. While Raimi balanced grittiness and lightheartedness in his role as director, the script seems unfocused, as if it's unsure what kind of movie it wanted to be. Did it want to be a Batman-like story about a dark antihero? Or something different? Don't get me wrong, I didn't think the script was bad. It's actually somewhat serviceable. I just thought it could have been stronger, is all.

Though the screenplay might be a bit conflicted about itself, there are some good performances from the cast to make things better. But let's get the bad out of the way first. Colin Friels's character is just a one-note sleazebag villain, and he doesn't even try to be anything more than that. But at least he puts forth more of an effort than Frances McDormand, who I thought was the weakest link amongst the whole cast. She's just playing the token love interest with all the enthusiasm one would have for a wet dishrag.

It's not all bad, though. Larry Drake is a lot of fun as Durant, playing the role with absolute glee. It's like Drake approached the role as if it were a campier role of Kurtwood Smith's character from RoboCop, That isn't a bad thing at all, because Drake really was on his A-game throughout the entire movie. When he shows up and starts chopping some mook's fingers off with a cigar clipper, he does it in such a way that makes him look like an imposing villain yet makes him a ton of fun to watch.

Liam Neeson is also great as our titular superhero. His painfully anguished performance brings a real feeling of tragedy to the character, making one feel a ton of sympathy for him even when he's in the middle of what could only be described as manic episodes. The bit at the carnival with the pink elephant was a little on the laughable side though, just because of how bizarre the whole sequence is. But that isn't Neeson's fault, so I won't hold it against him.

Darkman is a flawed movie that is rough around the edges, but it's still good enough to be worth watching. Raimi's crafted not just a superhero movie, but a love letter to old school pulp heroes from the '30s and '40s. And had the movie worked out better, it could have sparked a full-blown franchise. Alas, all Darkman got was two direct-to-video sequels and a relegation to a footnote in the history of superhero cinema. That's a real shame, because it's not a bad flick at all. The character has a lot of potential, and I wouldn't be opposed to somebody doing a remake of it someday. But will that ever happen? Somehow I doubt it.

Final Rating: ***