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Unlucky Devil



Mark Steven Johnson, USA, 2003

Rating: 2.0



Posted: February 16, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There's a scene early on in Daredevil, Mark Steven Johnson's blockbuster adaptation of the cult-favorite Marvel Comics title, in which a trio of adolescent thugs gangs up on young Matthew Murdock, a shy slip of a bookworm who also happens to be blind. Led by the perpetually thuggish Robert Iler (surly Anthony Jr. on The Sopranos), these three toughs get their asses handed to them in short order; turns out Murdock, who's recently been blinded as a result of an eyeful of radioactive sludge, has had his remaining four senses souped up as a result, and has used those abilities (including a kind of radar-sense) to hone himself into a pubescent fighting machine. This throwaway scene is instructive, because in a way the three bullies come to symbolize the film's audience. You've got to be plenty rotten to pick on a poor blind kid, but as Daredevil drags on, we increasingly begin to sympathize with these snot-nosed punks. Because the more flaws and foibles Daredevil, the movie, reveals -- and it has plenty -- the more we want to inflict violence upon it. And in the end, like little Matt Murdock, Daredevil cruelly thwarts our expectations; it uses its many weaknesses as a series of blunt weapons with which it clubs us into a kind of baffled senselessness.

This scene is also noteworthy for another reason: In cavalierly kicking the butts of his tormentors, young Murdock shows a blithe disinterest in keeping his newfound abilities a secret. Whereas his fellow comic book hero Spider-Man takes great pains to hide his special abilities, even when it means suffering indignities at the hands of callow schoolyard bullies, the future Daredevil makes no attempt to conceal his abilities. This is but the first in a symphony of false notes that ultimately render Daredevil a cacophonic mess, a spectacular train-wreck of a comic book movie so frustratingly and astoundingly clueless as to its own inadequacies that it makes Batman and Robin look like Apocalypse Now.

Young Murdock (played with convincing wallflower frailty by Scott Terra, who resembles a younger Colin Farrell more than he does a miniature Ben Affleck) soon witnesses the murder of his father, a washed-up boxer whose refusal to throw a fight gets him in trouble with the mob. Thus young Matt grows into a grimly obsessed defense lawyer (Affleck), one who uses his uncanny abilities to hunt down those criminals who slip through the cracks in the justice system. Okay, so it's flimsy, but that's the premise of the comic; what are you gonna do? Hopefully, what you wouldn't do is set up a sequence in which Murdock, representing a young rape victim, somehow morphs into a prosecutor during a courtroom scene in which the accused rapist soon goes free. When the loose morals of his client are called into question, Murdock actually barks "My client's not on trial here!" (Well, exactly who is, counselor? Is this a civil trial? What's going on?)

But that's exactly what director/screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson does. And he compounds this appallingly sloppy bit of storytelling with a fast and furious barrage of head-scratchers. Murdock, whose small firm often represents folks who can only pay in fish, cheese wheels or sporting goods, somehow affords a sweet apartment complete with a secret superhero armory and his own sensory-deprivation tank. Immediately upon meeting the beautiful Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), Murdock courts her by way of an outlandish display of martial arts and acrobatics -- in the middle of a park, in full view of a throng of eyewitnesses. Murdock gamely accepts at face value Elektra's explanation of her own stunning prowess (her father made her study under a parade of senseis since childhood), never once questioning this obviously bizarre story. But this seems only fair, since Elektra, who becomes Murdock's lover, never suspects that her blind, insanely powerful boyfriend is the same leather-clad superhero she keeps running up against.

Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in or about Daredevil lives up to our expectations, or makes any sense. Michael Clarke Duncan fails spectacularly as the Kingpin, the villain of the piece, not because he's black (where the comics character is white), but because he never exudes the icy sense of businesslike menace the role requires; instead, he's an amiable, avuncular cartoon, and when he orders a hit on Elektra's father, a trusted henchman who wants to retire from the crime business, it comes across more as a lark than a sound criminal-empire-type decision. (Worse, he folds like a rickety card table during the climactic battle with Daredevil, all but bawling like the proverbial schoolgirl.) Likewise, Farrell, a critical darling currently shouldering the burden of "Next Big Thing" hype, plays the calculating assassin Bullseye as a leering one-note parody of every B-movie villain in the history of film; he makes Jack Nicholson's shrill, over-the-top turn as the Joker in Batman look like Olivier by comparison. And Garner, although a striking beauty, makes about as much sense in the role of Greek-descended Elektra as would My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Nia Vardalos. Conversely, Affleck, whose smirking mug would seem an odd fit for the role of a brooding superhero, comports himself ably as Murdock/Daredevil, although this may only be a result of Johnson's comically under-developed script; if the role had been written with a bit more shading and depth, it's possible that Affleck would have proven a poor choice for the "Man Without Fear."

Additionally, Murdock's "redemption" -- he transforms from an obsessed vigilante who doesn't mind killing an acquitted criminal to a more even-tempered and merciful soul by film's end -- proves as flat and forced as a politician's campaign promise. Factor in a plot more filled with holes than a crack addict's arm -- characters are always seeming to magically possess key bits of info at the right time -- and you've got a film begging for the lowest possible rating allowed by law. But Daredevil does manage to get a couple of things right: Namely, the cinematography (which captures the murky, noir feel of the comic) and choreography (quick and balletic, save for a couple of shots in which the title character seems to think he's Spider-Man). And Jon Favreau, as Murdock's put-upon law partner Foggy Nelson, provides some welcome relief in his few scenes with Affleck.

Thus is Daredevil saved, if only barely, from our very worst rating. But for all its problematic thematic quirks, the comic on which the film is based has proven over the years to be one of Marvel's most richly satisfying properties, thanks to the work of auteurs like Frank Miller, Dennis O'Neil and (most recently) Brian Michael Bendis. Its complex characters and moody mythology (steeped in ninja folklore and contemporary Christian iconography) deserve much better than Johnson (who directed Simon Birch and wrote Jack Frost and Grumpy Old Men, among others) proves capable of delivering. If the film manages to nail down the look and feel of the title, it nonetheless lacks the comic's vision. And one can't help feeling angered by its weakness, much like the punks who terrorize a little blind kid in its early going.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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