on February 14, 2003 by Wade Major
The Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil is not obvious feature film material--the comic, despite a loyal following, does not have broad a demographic appeal, and the hero, who is blind, has virtually none of the obvious marketability associated with the likes of Spider-Man, Batman or Superman. Nonetheless, Marvel and Fox have taken the chance, allegedly boosting the "Daredevil" film's original budget after "Spider-Man" went through the roof. Unfortunately, their gamble does not pay off.

Blinded in a childhood chemical accident, attorney Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) fights bad guys in the courtroom by day, then throws on a red suit to play vigilante crime-fighter at night when his hypersensitive other senses give him a decided advantage. He gets around much like Spider-Man, swinging and leaping from building to building, though unlike Spider-Man, he does so without special powers, aided only by a pair of handy utility clubs.

For the film, Daredevil's red tights have been reconceptualized as a kind of red leather biker's outfit, a crimson version of Elvis Presley's classic black leather getup. Not that it matters--Daredevil's not much of a straight-up hero anyhow. He's almost more of a reckless vigilante, still sorting out the residual anger of his boxer father's death at the hand of an anonymous hit man.

Daredevil's present-day dilemma involves a mobster known as Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) who is consolidating power over New York's crime community, an effort that leads him to enlist a psychotic expert marksman named Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to dispose of a disloyal multi-millionaire named Natchios. As it happens, Murdock/Daredevil is romancing Natchios' tough-as-nails daughter, Elektra (Jennifer Garner), and shows up just in time to try foiling the intended assassination. But he's unsuccessful--Bullseye kills Natchios with one of Daredevil's own clubs, leading Elektra to believe that it's against Daredevil that she must swear revenge.

On its face, it's an intriguing dilemma which might even have worked if the film had told its story with any attention to pacing. As it stands, it takes nearly a full hour to even get to Natchios' death, followed by a hasty and utterly anticlimactic resolution to the tension with Elektra. This leaves Daredevil in a dramatic quandary, faced with not one but two villains who must both be summarily delivered to justice.

It's a classic case of the filmmakers trying to do too much, weaving too many characters into too many circumstances for any kind of satisfactory extrication to take place. And with much of the film's running time squandered on a lugubrious setup, audiences are unlikely to have much energy or patience for what amounts to a very conventional finale.

"Daredevil" admittedly has no shortage of style--it's simply not comic book style. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson seems an especially odd choice to make the film--he previously wrote "Grumpy Old Men" and its sequel and wrote and directed the sentimental "Simon Birch." Here he seems predictably out of his element, relying on effects and action to compensate for the script's narrative clumsiness. Casting, unfortunately, further degrades the effort--Ben Affleck gives the part his very best effort, but simply is not convincing. Jennifer Garner fares only moderately better, shortchanged by abbreviated screen time and at least one horrific contrivance. Farrell, on the other hand, appears acutely aware that he's in a comic book movie--he's eccentric, over-the-top and just determined enough to single-handedly save any number of scenes in which he appears.

Solid supporting players lend their talents as well--Jon Favreau and Joe Pantoliano--while "Charlie's Angels" fight choreographer Yuen Cheung-Yan--brother of "The Matrix's" Yuen Wo Ping--works out a number of excellent, if derivative, fight sequences. If only everyone else had taken their work as seriously. Starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Joe Pantoliano and David Keith. Directed and written by Mark Steven Johnson. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Gary Foster and Avi Arad. A 20th Century Fox release. Action. Rated PG-13 for action/violence and some sensuality. Running time

Tags: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Directed and written by Mark Steven Johnson, Produced by Arnon Milchan, Gary Foster, Avi Arad, A 20th Century Fox release, Action, contrivance, comic book, over-the-top, dilemma, anticlimactic, tension, villains

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