Daredevil  (2003)

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Critics and fans have not been kind to the casting of Ben Affleck as the title character. But I thought he was okay. He makes quite a mean action hero. There’s a real sense that he viscerally enjoys hurting the bad guys. It’s a pretty violent movie. Much of the violence is wannabe-balletic Matrixoid martial arts, but other scenes are more realistically bloody... and sometimes the two don’t mesh well. The notorious and much-criticized little scene that shows him chewing perscription painkillers after a fight was, I thought, a very nice touch — it’s hard to think of anything that more directly punctures the membrane of unreality between comic book fights and real life. It’s too bad the rest of the movie didn’t show any similar attachment to keeping things on a human level. The realistic bits just end up requiring that much more effort from you to suspend disbelief in the more absurd scenes, which pile up toward the end of the film.

Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, “the Man Without Fear”, is one of the more imaginative comic book hero creations. Growing up poor in a tough part of the city, then blinded as a boy by a Freak Accident involving weird scientific stuff (that old superhero-origin standby), he has gained in place of his vision such an acute development of his other senses that he can sense his surroundings, in many ways, better than he could with his eyes. His sonar-like ability to “see” by sound reflections is very well rendered as a visual effect. I don’t think any previous movie has done as well with an “alien vision” type of effect before. He has also developed freakish levels of strength and agility. It’s never clear to what degree this is part of his unnatural Freak Accident powers... particularly since the other fighters he encounters are often nearly as superhuman as he is. (Sometimes the CGI doesn’t blend in too well in these moments of superhuman agility, by the way.)

The movie is full of both quite good points and quite bad points. On the good side, it is wonderfully photographed. There are nice imaginative touches, such as the bit where a bad guy scrambles over a puddle, and then we see reflected in the puddle the sight of Daredevil’s boots plummeting down toward the pavement behind him. The modern technique of computerized swooping viewpoints has here, for one of the first times, developed to where it is no longer just a gimmick but is a tool that can be used artistically. And by action movie standards, the lead character is rather nicely developed; his resolve to battle Communism is more believable than is usual with these roles. An example of the bad side is the audio mix: ridiculous and poorly timed Foley noises accompany almost any action. Even putting on a jacket can go whish-whoosh! like a kung fu move. And the music shows only that corporate rock can now sound like ’90s grunge.

There are many MST3K moments — events that are just laugh-at-the-screen idiotic — typically involving the Bullseye character. Like, did you know that it’s possible to kill someone by throwing a straightened paperclip to stick in his adam’s apple? Without these random moments of utter stupidness, this might have ended up being a good movie.

Jennifer Garner as Elektra is a better actor than martial arts performer — I had expected the opposite. In a movie like this, that actually ends up being a disappointment. (But, she is also uncommonly hott.) Michael Clarke Duncan as the story’s chief Communist is very good... he probably has the largest combined total of acting talent and bicep size of anyone currently working in Hollywood. His Kingpin is the character most changed from the source comic, but in his hands it works well, and you don’t wish they’d stuck to the original idea. Scott Terra as Matt at age 12 does a fine job. But Colin Farrell as Bullseye is so over-the-top as to be completely unconvincing — the role becomes a serious weakness of the film. His Irish accent seems damn uneven, too... maybe he fucked it up by trying for years to talk American.

Since word of mouth had led me in with low expectations, I was surprised at first by how good a movie I was seeing. Half way in, I was thinking it might be superior to Spider-Man. But then as it continued, it got progressively stupider and less believable, and I ended up truly disappointed, because my expectations had been temporarily raised. The fights get more and more absurd and impossible, and all too often seem designed to remind you of other movies — Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for one — rather than to look like anything real. In the end, since Mark Steven Johnson is no Ang Lee, these high-concept superfight absurdities just hurt the story. And the ending is way too contrived, for the overly obvious sake of setting up sequels.