Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Peyton Westlake, a dedicated scientist and loving boyfriend to lawyer Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), whom he has just popped the question to. Westlake is aiming to perfect an artificial skin for burns victims, but when Julie stumbles upon criminal information about her rich contractor boss Strack (Colin Friels), Strack sends mobster Durant (Larry Drake) and his goons to find Julie and the incriminating documents. Instead, they find Westlake (well, they are in his lab after all), and after beating the snot out of him, they blow his lab up, sending Westlake’s body sky high (in a moment I used to rewind and watch over and over as a young man. Sick, I was). But Westlake is not dead and somehow finds himself at doctor Jenny Agutter’s hospital with burns covering the majority of his body. The doctors use experimental treatment that fixes his massive pain, but also gives him super-strength and some uncontrollable anger issues. Fleeing the hospital, Westlake holes up in an abandoned warehouse and goes to work on fixing his face with his own artificial skin. It works, though unfortunately it only lasts about 90 minutes. However, this is enough for him to adopt various disguises and infiltrate the evildoers in order to exact his revenge.
Some might call this 1990 film from Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”, “Evil Dead II”, “A Simple Plan”) a dry run for his superhero series of “Spider Man” films, but that’s not quite accurate. For starters, this is a much more enjoyable film than any of those films (and an original creation I might add), if a tad overrated by some. I remember enjoying this one when I was a pre-teen and, although having not seen this in at least a decade, it holds up pretty well as I write this 25 years after it was originally released (I feel fucking old, by the way). Even some of the poor projection work could be chalked up to intentional 50s/60s-ish touches by Raimi. Try looking at some of the films Hitchcock made in the late 50s and into the 60s, for instance (“Marnie” in particular suffers from it). I’m also not convinced Raimi was working with a particularly big budget anyway, so some of the less-than-stellar FX work is forgivable, though it’s pretty hard not to notice it.
In terms of cinematography, production design, and music score, however, the film is absolutely top-notch, and the makeup is pretty good too. Danny Elfman (“Batman”, anyone?) is the perfect guy for this kind of material and delivers a bloody good job here to go with his work for Tim Burton. The best way to describe the film is probably a mixture of “Dick Tracy”, “Batman”, “Phantom of the Opera”, and “The Invisible Man” (Indeed, Raimi envisioned this as a mixture of superhero film and Universal horror film homage. It certainly looks like such a blend). Raimi’s the perfect director for this schlocky material, making his pedestrian and ‘safe’ “Spider Man” films all the more disappointing, really. He brings a lot of excitement, energy, and visual panache to this that the arachnid superhero series really could’ve used a lot more of.
The other two big assets here are the performances by an effectively anguished Liam Neeson and dastardly Larry Drake. Neeson is instantly likeable here in the all-important title role, which I think might’ve been the first film I saw him in. Entirely sympathetic and with great presence, the film would be so poorer without him. I have no idea how Larry Drake manages to be so good here and hasn’t managed to match it in any other project (aside from maybe “L.A. Law”), but he’s a perfect cartoony villain, in the “Dick Tracy” mould, except “Dick Tracy” (released the same year) absolutely sucked on all levels. Drake’s collection of severed fingers is wonderfully sick and twisted.
Frances McDormand is an actress I tend to find overrated (Loved her in “Almost Famous”, however), and although her role isn’t much here, she does it quite well. Meanwhile, look out for small appearances by a twitching and bugged-out Ted Raimi as a goon, the late great Julius Harris as a gravedigger, and the similarly late great Prof. Toru Tanaka in the Asian restaurant scene. Hell, even Jenny Agutter turns up briefly as a doctor, and seems to have found the fountain of youth. She didn’t seem to age at all between 1981 and 1990. Bruce Campbell fans will have to wait for his obligatory cameo, as it comes right at the end, credited as ‘Final Shemp’, for “Evil Dead” fans.
The one black spot in terms of casting is the oddball decision to cast Aussie actor Colin Friels in the role of the slick, corporate (secondary) villain role. I’m not a huge fan of Friels to begin with, but he’s far too rugged and blokey to be playing a slick yuppie schmuck, he’s badly miscast and ineffectual. He’s not remotely threatening at all. What the hell did Raimi see in Friels that made him think he could do this role? Anthony LaPaglia, fine, I could see him doing it. Even Jack Thompson could have a crack at it, but Friels? No way, and it hurts the film quite a bit. If one looks at Friels’ subsequent lack of American film work (“Class Action” had him in corporate mode again the next year), it proves quite telling, really. They just didn’t know what to do with him. The other problem with Friels, is the way his character is signalled as a villain from his very first shot. He may as well be wearing a sign or a twirly moustache, which is no fault of Friels’.
“Evil Dead” fans might find this far too tame for their liking, but this is a different beast. It’s a fun superhero-esque yarn, that is enhanced by the energetic direction by Raimi, camp villainy by Larry Drake, and the spot-on, empathetic work by Liam Neeson in the lead. Technologically it hasn’t aged brilliantly, but on an entertainment level, it still holds relatively strong. Definitely worth a look if you initially missed it. Based on a story by the director, the screenplay is by Daniel Goldin, Joshua Goldin (who both wrote “Out on a Limb” with Matthew Broderick), Chuck Pfarrer (“Navy SEALS”, “Barb Wire”, “Hard Target”), brother Ivan Raimi (“Army of Darkness”), and the director himself.