Despite their failed pitch pilot for a potential TV series, Universal was not yet ready to give up on franchising Darkman in the early ‘90s. While a theatrical sequel was supposedly mulled over for a time, the decision was ultimately made to cater to the home video market with a few direct-to-video entries. Thus the two films we have today, Darkman II: The Return of Durant and Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die were born. The latter was actually shot first and intended to be released as such, but during post-production, the decision was made to make The Return of Durant the first follow-up out of the gate.
Unfortunately, while it is leagues better than the aforementioned pilot, Darkman II still pales in comparison to Raimi’s original. Perhaps it is unfair to compare it to Raimi’s film on a technical level, given that the budget is lower and Bradford May, capable though he may be, is no Sam Raimi. Even moving beyond those aspects, however, this sequel just doesn’t measure up. The manic energy is almost completely gone from the film, as is the Universal Monsters-by-way-of-Looney Tunes madcap tone.
Even worse is the fact that Peyton Westlake, aka the titular Darkman, is basically a completely different character. Sure, Arnold Vosloo is meant to be playing the same character, but he is written completely differently. Gone are the mood swings, the gallows humor, and the half-insane ramblings. Gone is the gravelly voice and wild-eyed obsessive looks. In their place we have a relatively calm and well-mannered hero, neutered of his trademark elements (beyond looks) and now a hollow shell of his former self. They’ve done the worst thing you could do to a character like Darkman: they made him a bland, run of the mill, generic superhero.
This is a huge bummer, especially considering the fact that anyone who has seen John Woo’s Hard Target or his work with Stephen Sommers (The Mummy 1&2, G.I. Joe 1&2) knows that Vosloo has the chops to pick up where Liam Neeson left off with the mad genius vigilante. Vosloo does what he can with the role and certainly fairs better than Christopher Bowen did in the unused pilot, but the role is so blandly written that I can’t really fault Vosloo for it not working. We do get Larry Drake back as the evil Robert G. Durant, even Drake seems a bit bored by the proceedings. Ever the professional, he does his best to liven things up, but it’s just not enough. Even Durant’s “laser weapon” evil supervillain plot lacks oomph. It’s properly comic book-y, but played out so boringly that it saps all of the inherent camp fun out of it. There is no urgency to the plot and outside of a few “inner mind” short bits with Darkman, there’s no style to be found anywhere within.
The script is a bit of a mess as well. It is far more episodic than it should be, introducing what could only be classified as main supporting characters, only to bump them off after about 15 minutes. Darkman spends an early chunk of the film paling around with a fellow scientist, only for the latter to be killed. Then he moves on to working with a reporter, who is also killed shortly thereafter. Finally it’s the sister of the scientist that he latches onto, starting the cycle anew once more.
All of this comes off mainly as wheel-spinning until Darkman can finally face off against Durant. The film picks up a bit in the climax, but by then it is too little, too late. Still on the subject of the wonky script, there’s also the fact that Darkman remains in the same city as before, but never even mentions his former love, Julie. Nor is Louis Strack Jr. brought up. The opening montage omits both, which initially seems like an effort to catch people up without confusing them, but with zero references to either in the entire film, it feels less like simplification and more like needless retconning.
Hell, while we are on the subject of forgetting the events of the first film, when Durant comes out of the coma he apparently fell into after the helicopter crash in the first, he doesn’t even feel the need to avenge himself against Darkman. He doesn’t even bring our superhero Phantom of the Opera up! He just goes about rebuilding his criminal empire as though he’d been taking a long nap. When he finally realizes that Darkman is screwing with his plans again, his reaction is basically “Oh yeah, he’s still around. Well…shit”. That’s not direct dialogue, but it might as well be. Durant may have been one of the best elements in the original film, but two iterations of the character later and he’s just not as potent anymore. Perhaps he should have stayed dead and left us with his initial diabolical memory?
Sam Raimi’s Darkman remains one of the best entries in superhero cinema to date. It is a wildly inventive high point in the genre and recommended viewing for anyone who is a fan of superheroes or Sam Raimi’s work. Darkman II: The Return of Durant is none of these things. While not a terrible film, it is largely a forgettable one and certainly not required viewing. This was my first time seeing the film and I honestly can’t see myself sitting down with it again. Still, the franchise managed to live beyond it for one more film and a string of novels and comics. I haven’t experienced any of those just yet and will be sure to share my thoughts when I do. I just hope some or all are more creative and entertaining than this dud of a sequel.