Continuing the seemingly unstoppable streak of Comic Book Superhero movies, 2003’s first entry is “Daredevil”, a mid-level character from Marvel Comics, which also put out “X-Men”, “Spiderman”, the “Blade” franchise, and the upcoming “Hulk” and “X-Men 2”. “Daredevil” stars Ben Affleck as blind lawyer Matt Murdock, who defends the weak and poor by day, but puts on a fire-red costume and mask to do similar battles at night. By day Murdock relies on his education to seek justice; by night, Daredevil is all brawn and grit.
I’ve been told that Ben Affleck (“Pearl Harbor”) is a movie star, but I’ve never believed it. This continues to be the case, even though I found his turn as the blind lawyer/superhero in “Daredevil” to be a big step up for him. The film opens with a bruised and battered Daredevil seeking refuge in a church, and from here the film flashes back to Murdock’s childhood to explain how he got to be where he is now.
We meet Matt’s father (David Keith), a washed up prizefighter working as a bone-breaker for a local mobster. When young Matt is blinded in an accident involving toxic chemicals, the two Murdocks strike a bargain to be fearless in the face of all that life can throw at them. Things get complicated after the elder Murdock returns to the ring and is forced by his mob boss to throw a fight. Unable to disappoint his son, Murdock doesn’t take the dive, and is murdered in return. This leaves young Matt to carry on the battle for justice. You see, although he was blinded in the accident, Matt has gained superhuman senses that allow him to “see” and anticipate the actions of those around him as if he possessed some sort of “radar”.
“Daredevil” the movie is most entertaining when the blind vigilante is hunting his prey along the city blocks of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. With voiceover provided by the sometimes-too-bland Affleck, Daredevil is a driven crimefighter with superhuman senses, but still very human weaknesses. The film’s elaborate stunts and action sequences take place mostly at night, with the daytime scenes devoted to comedic moments between lawyer Murdock and his partner, Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau). Also along for the ride is reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano), who is investigating Daredevil’s existence.
“Daredevil” is co-written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, whose only previous directorial effort has been “Simon Birch”, not exactly the type of material you’d think is the right set-up for “Daredevil.” Regardless, Johnson proves to be the right man for the job because he showcases very intimate knowledge of Daredevil’s history. The movie is heavily inspired by artist/writer Frank Miller, who had a brief stint on the comic book in the mid ’80s. Miller not only introduced the Elektra and Bullseye characters, but also made Daredevil into a vengeful vigilante on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown. The film’s opening scene, with Daredevil clutching onto a church cross for dear life, is a direct homage to Miller.
Although rated PG-13, “Daredevil” is surprisingly grittier and tougher to stomach than a lot of its fellow Comic Book movies. Johnson’s superhero is a man who, once the night’s fighting is done, retires home with fresh scars to add to his already extensively collection of bodily scars. Johnson’s Daredevil is a man driven to fight injustice, and despite all of his advantages, is nevertheless just one man still trying to understand his role in life. This gritty and dirty look at Daredevil was unexpected, but very welcome.
Jennifer Garner (“Catch Me if You Can”) co-stars as Elektra Natchios, a tough cookie who is also the daughter of a Greek billionaire under the thumb of the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). When Elektra’s father is murdered by assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell) at the order of the Kingpin, Elektra thinks Daredevil is in on the assassination. This is made even more complex because Elektra and Matt Murdock are also involved in a passionate affair, with Elektra unaware of Murdock’s nighttime duties. Garner is sexy as hell in the role, and her playful daytime fisticuff with Murdock in a playground is strangely more stimulating than the duo’s later lovemaking.
As Bullseye, Colin Farrell (“Minority Report”) overacts his way out of any semblance of reality. It’s unconceivable that the Kingpin, who runs the entire city’s criminal empire under a cloak of secrecy, would hire such an indiscreet fellow as Bullseye. Not only does Bullseye kill everyone that annoys him (including an old woman on an airplane) in the most indiscreet fashion, but the man has little to no common sense. Also, the movie explains Daredevil’s superhuman abilities, but what about Bullseye’s? And for that matter, what about Elektra’s? These two may be highly trained warriors, but how does that explain their ability to leap between buildings without breaking a sweat?
If Johnson wants us to take the down-and-dirty and grit of Daredevil’s world seriously and at the same time swallow the cartoonish world of Bullseye and Kingpin, then he’s asking too much. The film’s first half, when we’re fully immersed in Daredevil’s tortured nightly existence, works best because it’s in direct contrast to the second half, which becomes a series of elaborate and CGI-enhanced fights between Daredevil, Elektra, and Bullseye. While the first half played out as if it could possibly happen in real life, the second half could only exist on the pages of a comic book.
You can’t have both.
Mark Steven Johnson (director) / Mark Steven Johnson, Bill Everett, Brian Helgeland (screenplay)
CAST: Ben Affleck …. Matt Murdock/Daredevil
Jennifer Garner …. Elektra Natchios
Michael Clarke Duncan …. The Kingpin/Wilson Fisk
Colin Farrell …. Bullseye
Jon Favreau …. Franklin ‘Foggy’ Nelson
Joe Pantoliano …. Ben Urich