When Sam Raimi was announced as the director of Spider Man, it was no surprise for horror fans.  Making live-action comic books was in his blood and he’d been proving the fact ever since he made super-8 movies with his pals in Michigan.  More importantly, he invented his own cinematic super hero in Darkman, a typically kinetic Raimi opus that blended comic book action and vintage horror iconography to create a memorably off-the-wall alternative to the super hero flicks released in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman.  It remains a cult favorite today, partially because few super hero movies have ever been this wild.

The tragic protagonist of Darkman is Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a devoted scientist at work on a synthetic skin substitute.  His work and his corporate lawyer girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) are his two obsessions.  Unfortunately, he loses both when sinister crook Durant (Larry Drake) comes looking for a document in Julie’s possession – and proceeds to blow up Peyton’s lab. Peyton is presumed to have died in the fire but survives (he’s literally blown out a window) and ends up as a John Doe in a burn clinic, where his nerves are clipped to save him pain.

Peyton escapes from the clinic, retreating to an old factory where he resumes his work with pilfered equipment. He is able to recreate his formula but it only works for 90 minutes at a time. However, that makes it possible for him to infiltrate Drake’s operation and re-enter Julie’s life using a mask of his old face.  He discovers that pursuing revenge and love at the same time is virtually impossible – and his revenge plans create danger for Julie and her morally questionable boss Strack (Colin Friels).  Darkman will have to battle both Durant and the angry monster inside to set things right.

Simply put, Darkman is the kind of film that rolls over the viewer with its speedy, kinetic sense of showmanship. Raimi hits the ground running with a bombastic action setpiece in a warehouse that establishes the sadistic/slapstick tone of the film and never looks back.  It also blends traditional superhero imagery/story conceits with those of vintage horror fare like Phantom Of The Opera. The script has a lot of fun gimmick details – the synthetic skin, Darkman’s abilities and limitations – but wisely keeps the plot simple so Raimi has maximum room for showmanship.

This results in a barrage of killer setpieces, the best being a jaw-dropping chase sequence that starts with exploding buildings and ends with some hair-raising stunts involving a man suspended from a rope attached to a flying helicopter. That sequence rivals anything you might see in today’s flashier, CGI-driven  superhero flicks – and is all the more impressive because it was achieved mostly with real stuntmen, real explosions and minimal green-screen trickery.

The one downside of Raimi’s approach is his desire to do everything he can do in one film results in a sometimes schizoid tone. There are some moments of pathos and drama that get undercut when he feels the need to also cram in some Three Stooges-style slapstick beats alongside the action and shocks. That said, it’s hard not to get swept up in the glee that Raimi displays when playing with his cinematic toys and the film’s fast-and-furious style ensures the audience will be too dazzled to think a lot about tonal shifts.

Thankfully, Raimi’s access to a studio-size budget ensured he was able to get a cast skilled enough to handle the tricky, ever-shifting moods of his story. Neeson enjoyed his first major Hollywood leading role here and does an impressive job: no matter how crazy the story gets, he invests his character with surprising emotional depth and complexity.  McDormand also plays it straight, doing professional work in a role that’s less demanding but offers some juicy emotional scenes in the third act. Elsewhere, Drake is a deadpan delight as a stylish yet Sadean villain and Aussie actor Friels does a convincing American accent as the smarmy boss character, giving an effective performance oddly reminiscent of William Devane.

In short, Darkman offers an impressive display of how to do comic book thrills in live action form. It’s one of the most important films in the Raimi filmography – and if you’ve only ever seen his Spider Man films, you can find the roots of those hits here.