Archive for Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Daredevil’ attempts a tough balancing act

(PG-13) **1/2

February 12, 2003

This is the best film year to be a geek.

Multiple superhero projects, a new "Lord of the Rings," TWO "Matrix" sequels - 2003 is guaranteed to live on in the annals of geekdom. Perhaps the biggest contributor to this post-adolescent fantasy upswing is Marvel Comics. Both "The Hulk" and "X-Men 2" hit screens this summer. And now comes the latest of the franchise's luminaries to be courted by Hollywood, a masked crime fighter with two prominent disadvantages: being blind and a lawyer.

A buff Ben Affleck stars as Matt Murdock, an attorney who suffered a childhood accident that left him blinded by radioactive chemicals. A side effect is that it heightened his other senses, bestowing upon him radar-like abilities and acrobatic skills.

Determined to serve criminals his own brand of justice - in the courts by day and on the streets by night - Murdock's alter-ego Daredevil gains a reputation as a vigilante. He also becomes a nuisance to The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), a muscular crime lord bent on ruling New York City. The villain dispatches his assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to "put the fear into him." The Irish mercenary comes equipped with the ability to turn everything he touches (pencils, playing cards, paper clips) into lethal weapons.

Adding to this clash is Murdock's/Daredevil's relationship with

Elektra Nachios (Jennifer Garner), the martial-arts adept daughter of a Greek billionaire who's run afoul of The Kingpin.

Recent Marvel-based movies have effectively converted costumed crime fighters into box-office contenders. Both "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" found ways to ground these characters in flesh-and-blood realities, and for the most part "Daredevil" succeeds. As an action movie, it's not quite up to par with the aforementioned pair but still a worthy entry into this pantheon.

The main problem with "Daredevil" is easy to spot just by looking at its poster: multiple adversaries. This has been plaguing modern comic book adaptation since "Batman" started churning out its ghastly sequels. Here, the hero does battle with no less than three super-powered opponents during the course of the movie, and by the fourth or fifth death match the sprawling concept has grown tiresome.

(Despite early drafts to the contrary, "Spider-Man" conquered this problem rather effectively by sticking with a lone villain.)

Admittedly, Elektra is pretty cool, and she also doubles as the story's love interest. (Her introduction to the lawyer leads to a mock playground battle that stands as the film's highlight.) A big part of this credit goes to Garner, one of the most persuasively athletic actresses to ever grace the screen. She brings more charm and intensity to this underwritten role than it probably deserves.

Also, the cantankerous Farrell does his best to give Bullseye a vivid working-class appeal - though it's never explained how the killer acquired such peculiar talents. (Viewers are advised to stick around after the credits for a witty epilogue involving the marksman.)

But the big-cheese Kingpin just fails miserably. Duncan's ("The Green Mile") performance is the least intriguing of the bunch, and his climactic showdown with DD is too preachy to be of much interest.

Since this is a movie based on action face-offs, it's surprising how inconsistent the combat scenes are. Hong Kong veterans Cheung-Yan Yuen and Daxing Zhang ("The Matrix") were hired to import their patented moves. But often the sequences are lit too murkily and edited too frenetically to generate much excitement. This is especially apparent during a clash between Daredevil and a bar full of gun-toting mobsters. The moments with Bullseye and Elektra fare better.

When Daredevil isn't fighting, director Mark Steven Johnson ("Simon Birch") resorts to CGI shots that too often echo Spider-Man, another Marvelite who uses the Manhattan skyline as his personaljungle gym.

Daredevil presents a unique visual challenge for the filmmakers. For the most part they handle his physically altered view of the world with flair. When the young Murdock suffers his accident, the noise of neighborhood surroundings (water faucets, car horns, jackhammers) hound him with sensory overload. The sound effects editing and ghostly images are quite effective.

As an adult, Murdock's only method of relaxation involves floating in an isolation tank where he can retreat from all the surrounding sounds that haunt him.

Ah, the lonely life of a hero.

Overall, this rendering of "Daredevil" is comparable to the character's eyesight: It effectively outlines the necessary information but never quite develops into a fully satisfying picture.

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