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DAREDEVIL(director/writer: Mark Steven Johnson; screenwriters: Bill Everett/Brian Helgeland/Stan Lee; cinematographer: Ericson Core; editors: Armen Minasian/Dennis Virkler; music: Graeme Revell; 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), David Keith (Jack Murdock), Scott Terra (Young Matt), Joe Pantoliano (Urich), (Vic), John S. Bakas (Greek Priest), Erick Avari (Ambassador Nikolaos Natchios), Leland Orser (Wesley); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Arnon Milchan/Avi Arad/Gary Foster; 20th Century Fox; 2003)
“It’s a film that came dressed for the party but forgot how to party.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Daredevil has been adapted to film by director and co-screenplay writer Mark Steven Johnson (“Simon Birch“) from Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics series. The Daredevil comic book stories were authored by Frank Miller back in the 1980s. It’s similar in theme to DC’s Batman comic book of ‘good versus evil’ and of both orphans fighting for justice to avenge their parent’s torturous deaths, but Daredevil is about a lesser known superhero who has developed great sensory powers to compensate for his blindness. Though, Daredevil is not without chinks in his armor.

The film’s mood is cynical and dark, rare commodities for such children’s adventure tale, but unfortunately the dialogue is not even up to comic book form and the story is too predictable and lacking in tension to cause any goose bumps. It misses the old bull’s eye by a wide margin when it concludes on a such a flat note after a less than impressive fight scene with the imposing main villain known as the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, (Michael Clarke Duncan). Kingpin is saddled with an underwritten part. It’s only his mammoth size that gives him the feel of being a comic book ‘villain’, but he doesn’t seem to be much of a fighter only a businessman taking care of business by hiring others to do his dirty work. Ho. Hum!

The film’s ending seemed written to keep the main villain alive for sequels, though the filmmaker makes an awkward point about Daredevil not killing Kingpin because he found redemption. Daredevil saved himself by working to save the city and thereby came to the conclusion that vengeance for his father’s and girlfriend’s death is not right– but only justice through the courts is the answer. Come on, this is merely a comic book story! There should have been more fun in this film instead of coming up with that wishy-washy ending. It’s a film that came dressed for the party but forgot how to party. It’s best viewed as a costume film that tries its max to humanize its superhero.

The film’s special effects are good enough imitations stolen from Spider-Man and other recent superhero films, and to its credit it doesn’t become a special effect film like most others of this sort. The film’s main problem remains Ben Affleck. If you like him for this role, then the film should satisfy you more than it did me. He’s dressed up in an inferior Batman’s costume, in red leather with horns protruding from his mask, which unmercifully makes him look more like he’s searching for a Halloween party in Greenwich Village than someone ready to stop crime. Affleck is too wimpish to be credible for the requirements of the action-packed role and hardly exudes onscreen a sexual charisma. His acting is rote, his range of emotions is limited, and he’s not that interesting as an actor to monopolize the screen like he does. He seems to be sleepwalking through his role as if he never got out of the sensory deprivation tank, a coffin-like box filled with water, that he uses to calm down after a night of fighting crime. In contrast, the film got one villain cast just right. The picture’s lifeforce emanates from Irish-born rising star Colin Farrell, who plays the hit man Bullseye with a forceful magnetism and an eerie charm.

Daredevil did manage despite all its violence and gloomy scenes to come up with a PG-13 rating, which might be the most daring feat it performed. Its theme is that one person can make a difference in making society better; its alternate theme might be you can’t fight without some kind of a uniform.

Readers of the New York Post will see their favorite rag splashed over the screen as the voice of the common people and the best place to read about a Superhero. Whenever Daredevil, who in his day job is known as Matt Murdoch and is a lawyer defending only those who are innocent, wants to know what’s happening in town he has his wisecracking law partner, Franklin (Jon Favreau), read him out loud one of the articles written about Daredevil’s exploits by a sympathetic NY Post reporter named Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano). The papers too obvious presence as part of the story smacks of an ever increasing trend by the film studios to raise money through placing sneaky adds into its films and posing them as essential props. Though I am a big fan of the Post’s screaming headlines, it’s just the rest of the paper that leaves me wondering if it was worth chopping down a forest for.

The film opens to a seemingly dying Daredevil on the floor of a church. In a series of flashbacks, the film brings us up to date on how he got into such a mess. The flashbacks begin when he’s 12 and he’s played by Scott Terra. Matt’s raised in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen (now gentrified and called Clinton) by his dockworker father (David Keith), who is a washed-up boxer who wants the best for Matt and insists that even though he’s bullied he shouldn’t fight back but hit the books to be a good student and grow up to be a lawyer. When Matt discovers that his father works for the mob, he runs away from him and as a result of contact with a toxic waste chemical spillage he accidentally becomes blind. He soon discovers that his senses are greatly improved and his hearing so much it now functions on a super-human capacity. He also loses all his fears. Father and son strive to make the best of the accident, as dad has a comeback in the ring at age 42 and wins a number of fights before he’s asked to take a dive by his old mob contacts. When he doesn’t, he’s beaten to death on orders of Kingpin.

Matt grows up to become a pro bono lawyer and gets off a whopper when he jests that his motto is “justice is blind.” At night he dons his Daredevil costume and becomes a one-man Guardian Angel patrol and vigilante crusader. He throws an exonerated rapist in front of the incoming D train, and the Post questions if the Daredevil was responsible and asks who the real Daredevil is. The film drags on until a romantic interest for the lonely Daredevil appears about halfway through the film. Elektra (Jennifer Garner) is a Greek-American heiress whom Matt meets in a coffee shop and follows her out to the street when she not only doesn’t give him her phone number but doesn’t even give him her name. I don’t blame her, his pickup lines were corny. But he corners her in a school playground area and they introduce themselves again by having a meaningless and poorly executed martial arts duel that they stole from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Warning: spoilers in the next two paragraphs.

The two date and have a romantic view of the city from Matt’s rooftop, and when it rains they take their soggy relationship under the covers. Elektra’s billionaire father (Eric Avari), who is not as good as he appears to Elektra, is killed in a mob hit when he tries to leave his partnership with Kingpin. The father is executed by Bullseye in a style fitting for such a comic book story. The blame unfairly falls on Daredevil, as he now has to fight off his girlfriend Elektra (who like her mythical namesake wants to avenge the death of her father). Garner distinguishes herself in this role mainly through her daring costume. It’s a vinyl ensemble made of pleather, which shows her healthy body to good effect.

But Affleck is strictly vanilla and is too bland for this part, and he continues to annoy with his frat-boy smirk at the most inopportune times. The romantic tangle with Garner never becomes absorbing as they show no chemistry onscreen together. Garner’s fight with Bullseye results in her death, and that scene didn’t quite have the impact it should have. The only thing that saves this film from the doldrums, is Affleck’s fight to the end in the church (there are bats in the belfry) with the energetically wired Colin Farrell. Farrell’s over-the-top performance as the fiercely looking multi-pierced, skin-headed psycho villain with a bull’s eye tattooed on his forehead, is a scream. Farrell can menacingly turn any object into a weapon that in turn he can aim like a missile at his target with pin-point accuracy. That fight got my attention like no other scene in this film did.

In Daredevil’s attempt to leap high buildings, swoop down from one rainy rooftop to another, soar into the darkened skyline of Manhattan, and most importantly become a franchise film, the slightly plotted story never takes off as expected. The blame for this misfire must fall to Mark Steven Johnson and his lackluster direction and poor casting decision of Affleck. Figuratively, Daredevil only hops around like a child playing leapfrog while barely getting off the floor. The film’s best line had the benevolent priest (Bakas) telling Daredevil in the confession booth that “someone without fear is also someone without hope.” Daredevil is only fearless when it comes to fighting, but as for the more far-reaching spiritual meaning–it probably needs a new script to reach for that nugget.

REVIEWED ON 2/26/2003 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”