When Sam Raimi directed the original Darkman back in 1990, it was an impressive feat, especially for the time: he created a big-screen superhero out of whole cloth—part comic book, part Universal monster, part Gaston Leroux, part ’80s action movie. It’s the kind of movie that should have launched a host of sequels—or, even better, a weekly series—but because of Sam Raimi’s own difficulties in making the film and because of the box office climate of the time, it didn’t happen. Not right away, at least.
Unwilling to let a potentially lucrative property disappear, Universal did put a pair of direct-to-video sequels into production in 1995. Though Raimi did not return to direct, he did remain on board as an executive producer, with directing duties on both movies turned over to Bradford May. The first of the sequels, 1995’s Darkman II: The Return of Durant recasts Liam Neeson with Arnold Vosloo (the titular Mummy of the 1999 reboot) as Dr. Peyton Westlake, the disfigured scientist who was left for dead and now spends his days trying to perfect a new liquid skin and fighting crime from the shadows. As you might have inferred from the title, his nemesis, Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake), is less dead than the first film had us believe and has returned to take over the city. Part of those plans involve buying real estate from a woman (played by Renee O’Connor of Xena: Warrior Princess fame) whom Darkman has vowed to protect.
For a DTV sequel, Darkman II is surprisingly decent. Director Bradford May, who would go on to also helm Darkman III and whose résumé consists almost entirely of episodic television and TV movies, does a pretty good Raimi imitation in The Return of Durant. The first sequel has a similar kind of energy and operatic flair, though it probably helps that so many of the beats of the first Darkman are just repeated here. There’s zero attempt to explain how Drake’s Durant survived the helicopter explosion that supposedly did him in the first time around, and there’s something almost confrontational about the way this plot point is dismissed. "Yes, he’s alive," the movie says. "Get over it and let’s move on." Another version of the film spends a great deal of screen time trying to justify his return, but May and screenwriter Steven McKay know that’s not why we sit down to watch something like this. They recognize that they need to get to the good stuff.
While Vosloo is able to cut an imposing figure in the full Darkman garb, he’s not quite a substitute for Liam Neeson. He fails to bring out the sense of Shakespearean tragedy that Neeson found in his portrayal of Westlake, and is seemingly less willing to lean into the weirdness and ugliness that Neeson had so much fun playing in the first film. Drake has just as much fun hamming it up as the cigar-cutting gangster as he did in Darkman—and possibly more. Recognizing that there’s less of a real story or a director’s clear vision this time around, Drake opts to fill the void by making Durant an even larger-than-live presence in the sequel. He, like almost everything else in the movie save for Vosloo, is even more cartoonish this time around. That’s hard to do when following up something as cartoonish as Darkman, but Raimi managed to balance that cartoon vibe with four or five other tones and influences. Darkman II is mostly just silly. Fun, but silly.
The same cannot exactly be said of Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, a great title in search of a better movie. Vosloo returns as Westlake/Darkman, as does director Bradford May, but the big get this time around is Jeff Fahey as this movie’s big bad. He’s Peter Rooker, a drug lord who wants to harness Darkman’s adrenaline and sell it as a super steroid, leaving Darkman to put a stop to his plan while at the same time falling for Rooker’s wife (Roxann Dawson) and child. And, yes, the notion of a drug dealer trying to turn Darkman blood into a street drug is about as dumb as it sounds—just one of a handful of shortcomings that keep Die Darkman Die from being even as good as Darkman II. For the most part, the movie feels like an episode of a Darkman TV series that never officially happened, and Vosloo feels like the show’s replacement Darkman. Taken in that context, Darkman III is okay (no movie with Jeff Fahey can be all bad) and suggests a weekly series I would have happily welcome in the 1990s. As its own standalone film, though, it’s a pretty pale substitute for the original thing.
Both Darkman sequels arrive on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory using what appear to be existing HD masters. They look just fine, but aren’t comparable to some of the great restoration work the company has been doing lately—nor do they really need to be, I suppose. With very few special features to justify a standalone purchase, these seem like the kind of titles that Scream Factory could have packaged together as a double feature disc. Instead, they’re available separately. Darkman II has the bulk of the bonus material, including a commentary from Bradford May, the original VHS promo, a trailer, and an alternate TV cut of the film that includes different material. The TV version is presented in standard def. Darkman III includes a May commentary and a trailer, nothing more.
Neither of the two Darkman sequels are what you might consider essential viewing, but they’re a reasonable amount of fun and at least one of them is better than it has much right being. While I wish Scream Factory had released them differently, fans of the “franchise” (as it were) will no doubt want to add these two titles to their collections. And if anyone from Universal happens to be reading this, it’s not too late for that Darkman TV show.
Darkman II: The Return of Durant Movie Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 3/5
Darkman III: Die Darkman Die Movie Score: 2/5, Disc Score: 2.5/5