DAREDEVIL

PG-13

-By Ethan Alter


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When it comes to translating a comic book to film, consistency in tone is everything. Tim Burton understood that when he boldly transformed Batman and his rogues' gallery into the stuff of gothic melodrama in the vastly underrated Batman Returns. And this past summer, Sam Raimi's pop-art take on Spider-Man kept millions of moviegoers entertained with its wit and playfulness. Perhaps the biggest problem with Daredevil, Hollywood's latest foray into the comic-book world, is that its tone veers wildly all over the map. One moment the film aspires to high drama (although it's actually closer to high camp) and the next it seems primarily concerned with trying to out-Matrix The Matrix.

Daredevil's lack of focus is unfortunate because the titular hero is easily one of the more interesting characters in the Marvel universe. Blinded in a freak accident as a young boy, Matt Murdock discovers that his four other senses--particularly his hearing--have developed to superhuman levels. As if that isn't traumatic enough for a kid, his father, a past-his-prime boxer, is killed by a crooked fight promoter, leaving him an orphan. With this kind of backstory, it's no wonder the adult Matt possesses an unhealthy obsession with justice that compels him to lead a double life. By day, he's a respected Manhattan attorney, but when the sun goes down, he takes to the rooftops of Hell's Kitchen as the colorfully garbed vigilante, Daredevil.

Although he was initially conceived as a more cheerful crimefighter like his frequent partner Spider-Man, the definitive interpretation of Daredevil came in the early 1980s when comics guru Frank Miller (who penned the groundbreaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns) turned the character into a gritty anti-hero. While Captain America and The Fantastic Four still battled supervillains like the Red Skull and Dr. Doom, the new Daredevil mainly tackled 'real world' foes like drug addicts, corrupt business tycoons and gangbangers. Sure, a costumed baddie would waltz through Hell's Kitchen every now and then, but even they didn't have any grand schemes for world domination--they just wanted to see the hero dead. Miller also injected the character with a strong strain of self-doubt; Murdock often wrestled with the morality of his extracurricular activities, wondering how much good he was really accomplishing as Daredevil and how far he was willing to go to keep his neighborhood safe.

It's from this template that writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (Simon Birch) drew his inspiration for the film. An avowed comics geek with a particular fondness for Daredevil, Johnson clearly knows and loves the material. In fact, several moments, most notably a climactic battle sequence, are ripped directly from the pages of the comic book. Sadly, his passion for the character doesn't help him when it comes to staging scenes. Simply put, Daredevil is horribly directed; the visual style ranges from derivative to ugly and the action sequences are often incoherent. (The bargain-basement CGI will have you longing for Spider-Man's cartoony effects work.) Almost as bad is Johnson's script, which is filled with so many unintentional howlers, you wonder why Fox ever green-lit the movie in the first place.

Surprisingly, the cast emerges from this fiasco more or less unscathed. Despite being saddled with much of the film's worst dialogue, Ben Affleck actually makes for a pretty good Daredevil. The actor has a square-jawed self-righteousness that fits the part of a tortured vigilante nicely. Still, his scenes out of costume are much better, particularly when he's sharing the frame with Jon Favreau, who steals the movie as Matt's best friend and fellow lawyer, Foggy Nelson. Meanwhile, Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell chew the scenery with great relish as Daredevil's twin nemeses, the Kingpin and Bullseye, respectively. (Farrell, in particular, exudes more energy and charisma in this supporting part than he has in any of his lead roles). The only performer who doesn't make much of an impression is Jennifer Garner, who seems to think she's acting in a serious drama. Garner is certainly easy on the eyes, but her line readings are flat and the romance between her and Affleck lacks any real passion.

Even for the most die-hard comic-book fan, the movie seems bound to disappoint. He may be a Daredevil devotee, but Johnson is unable to capture the elements that make the character so unique on the page. Based on the movie, this compelling hero seems like nothing more than a blind guy with a thing for red leather.

--Ethan Alter


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