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Zadzooks: Predator, Darkman and Flash Gordon

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 8, 2010

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with DVD-ROM and Blu-ray-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Predator: Ultimate Hunter Edition (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, rated R, $29.99)  One of sci-fi/horror's pre-eminent species gets a new movie this year and a high-definition release celebrating its first appearance on-screen.

The 1987 film won't be remembered because a pair of future politicians had starring roles  Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, to be precise  but for creature designer Stan Winston's nasty warrior, an intergalactic hunter with a blood lust matching its ugliness and sophisticated weaponry.

The story delivers a mix of ultraviolence and the machismo-thickened camaraderie of the "Dirty Dozen" variety within a suspenseful hide-and-seek session served up by a cast of boneheaded soldiers way out of their league against the Predator.

The 23-year-old effort looks great, thanks to a digital restoration. The action within the dense jungle has never been clearer, and marveling at Mr. Winston's work is truly a delight.

Best extras: Taking nearly all of the extras from the 2004 two-disc special-edition DVD, the latest release's bonus highlights include an optional commentary track with director John McTiernan (he's as sluggish as he is playful here, with plenty of background information) and an optional text commentary track with about a dozen production staff members offering plenty of information on casting, how to light a stuntman on fire and the history of the movie.

New to the Blu-ray is "Evolution of the Species: Hunters of Extreme Perfection," an 11-minute update on the film's origins. It acts more as a marketing promotion for the new movie, "Predators," complete with an interesting back story from producer Robert Rodriguez, who discusses his love for the character and how he was asked to write a "Predator" script back in 1993 or so.

Read all about it: Dark Horse Comics has brought the ultimate hunter to sequential-art life for more than 21 years. Currently, look for a four-issue limited-series Predator ($3.50 each) and a four-issue prequel ($2.99 each) and adaptation ($6.99) of the new film, "Predators."

Darkman (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, rated R, $26.99)  A cult classic from 1990  conceived and directed by Sam Raimi, no less  has been transferred to the Blu-ray format to give a new generation of fans a look at one of the better superhero-themed movies.

Liam Neeson stars as Peyton Westlake, a scientist trying to perfect a substitution for human skin who unintentionally gets caught in a corrupt development deal enveloping his attorney girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand).

After being viciously attacked in his lab by the deliciously evil Durant (Larry Drake), who is searching for incriminating evidence, Westlake becomes the horribly disfigured Darkman, a vigilante concealed in bandages, a trench coat and hat.

His powers lie in an operation to help heal his burns. It shuts off the pain sensors in his skin, turning him into an emotional powder keg with adrenaline rushes that lead to fits of strength. He also manages to re-create his research and builds faces of himself and his enemies. He can only wear each face for 99 minutes before the fake skin breaks down.

Bent on revenge, this tragic figure must hide from his love as he challenges the men who destroyed him.

This campy, action-packed gothic masterpiece, crafted by a hungry Mr. Raimi, delivers myriad comic-book-panel moments tied to explosions, a final harrowing chase and emotionally charged episodes. (Trying to win a stuffed animal for his love turns Westlake into a maniac.) Viewers can see shades of the director's future "Spider-Man" movies taking shape.

A final scene with a good pal of Mr. Raimi's appearing as the last face of Darkman (Bruce Campbell) cements the deal for this wonderfully twisted look at the emerging, angst-ridden-hero genre of movies.

Best extras: Universal Studios offers absolutely nothing for the fan of this fun movie. It seems incredible that someone could not have gotten Mr. Raimi for a commentary track or at least a short interview. Considering the bubbling cult status of the character and its blueprint for how to make a cool superhero flick, the lack of extras relegates the Blu-ray to rental-only status.

Read all about it: Marvel Comics not only offered a three-issue adaptation of the movie back in 1990 (around $2 in near mint condition for each) but also went on to publish a six-issue limited series in 1993 (around $4 in near mint condition for each) extending Darkman's adventures.

Flash Gordon (Universal Home Entertainment, rated PG, $26.98) Alex Raymond's popular science-fiction comic strip from the 1930s became a big-budget movie in 1980 starring Playgirl centerfold Sam J. Jones.

Now available in the Blu-ray format, the colorful film looks solid in high definition and really brings the hero and his universe to live-action life.

Through a highly stylized production design and tongue-in-cheek script written by 1960s "Batman" television scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr., the story finds Flash Gordon, along with Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov on a mission to the planet Mongo to help stop Ming the Merciless from destroying Earth.

When it was released, the movie felt more like a desperate attempt to glom onto the "Star Wars" bandwagon than a celebration of the Raymond universe. It quickly attained cult status, however, thanks to a guitar-shredding musical score from Queen, its quirky level of humor and sexuality (Princess Auro left many a young boy smitten), a scenery-munching performance by Max von Sydow as Ming, and an army of hawk-men led by the burly Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed).

Best extras: Culled from the 2007 Saviour of the Universe Edition DVD, the bonus content includes a glowing 14-minute recommendation of the film by legendary sequential-art painter Alex Ross (he is frighteningly excited by it), and a slightly odd interview with Mr. Semple, who appears bitter about the film's lack of popularity (during its initial release) and his lack of direction during the script-writing process.

Additionally, and most fun, fans get to watch the first film serial episode of Flash Gordon in action. The 20-minute black-and-white gem from 1936 stars Buster Crabbe as our hero and features lessons in overacting and cutting-edge special effects starring a pair of iguanas.

Read all about it: Checker Book Publishing Group offers seven hardcover volumes covering the gorgeous classic comic strip in "Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon" ($19.95 each).

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