Daredevil (2003) / Action-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some sensuality
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Kevin Smith (cameo), Stan Lee (cameo), Frank Miller (cameo)
Director:  Mark Steven Johnson
Screenplay: Mark Steven Johnson

Review published February 15, 2003

Following hot on the heels of the latest wave of superhero films based on characters from Marvel's House of Ideas, which recently has given us Blade, X-Men, and the blockbuster smash, Spider-Man, comes one of their most enduring, yet little-known outside of the comics world, Daredevil.  This one falls under the category of being a mixed bag of extremes, as when it does things well, it does them very well, and when it's bad, it's painfully awful.

Ben Affleck (The Third Wheel, The Sum of All Fears) stars as Matt Murdock, who as a child accidentally ran into a batch of a radioactive substance which left him blind, but somehow enhanced all of his other senses to maximum proportions.  The death of his father (Keith, Behind Enemy Lines) leaves him an orphan, but Matt vows that no one should end up like his father, taking up a crusade to rid the streets of the evil-doers, both in the courtroom as a lawyer, and as a costumed street vigilante in New York's Hell's Kitchen.  Controlling the crime syndicate is Kingpin (Duncan, The Scorpion King), a man as powerful in body as he is in iron-fisted control of the city, and a man who may have been responsible for the murder of Matt's father, and many other innocents throughout the city. 

With my feelings being torn, perhaps the easiest thing to do is to break the down, since I'm of two minds regarding the experience of the viewing.

THE GOOD

Daredevil succeeds, for the most part, because the creators aren't just filmmakers, but actual fans of the comic book.  Scattered throughout the film are homages to the comic book's glory days, name-dropping such famous writers as "Miller, Mack, and Bendis."  There are some visual homages to some of the more famous events in the series as well, such as the shot of Daredevil clinging to a cross, or in the confrontation between Elektra (Garner, 13 Going on 30), Murdock's love interest, and Bullseye (Farrell, The Recruit), the assassin sent to murder Elektra's father.  Cameo appearances by Marvel creator, Stan Lee, and the man who helped re-popularize the character in recent years, filmmaker Kevin Smith, also should entertain those who might have a passing knowledge of the comic book character. 

The direction by Mark Steven Johnson (Simon Birch, Ghost Rider) is visually quite stunning, and the aesthetic qualities of the film are almost enough to keep your attention.  I very rarely give a film credit for eye-candy, but this is a case where the special effects definitely enhanced the look and feel of the overall story to great effect.  The sweeping shots of the city, the religious symbolism, the light and dark visions in Matt Murdock's hyper-sensitive mind, they are all stunningly rendered, and very intriguing to the overall theme of family and vengeance, like the Greek tragedies from which Elektra draws her name and inspiration.

The film also delivers on terrific action and much-needed bits of comic relief by Jon Favreau (Made, The Replacements).  When Daredevil faces any equally worthy opponent, the mood electrifies, almost like the feeling of Titans battling it out for supremacy on the world stage.  It's very reminiscent in look and feel to the reason I enjoyed Highlander, with its rock video attitude, religious undertones, and glorious hand-to-hand combat.  It's a testosterone-charged thrill-ride.

THE BAD

Sorry to say it, but suspension of silliness that almost needs to be employed in believing any man would dress up in a costume and fight crime, and Daredevil makes it seem sillier than most.  It's sometimes embarrassing to see Affleck and Garner doing a combat-tango in a school playground, or Farrell as Bullseye fuming on about "never missing" a target.  Daredevil's costume seems not only goofy, but awkwardly designed, and whenever he is shot with any amount of light, it sometimes evokes an unintentional chuckle. 

Colin Farrell's take on Bullseye invites more of the Highlander comparison, very similar to Clancy Brown's Kurgan, but he isn't nearly as menacing.  He seems far too hammy, perhaps intentionally so, but makes most scenes with him uneven in tone.   Is he supposed to be funny?  Scary?  Both?  He is neither.

Also, in a film that requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief, you'll find it strained to the breaking point on several occasions.  We understand that Daredevil has ultra-sensitive hearing, but why is he able to leap hundreds of feet at a time?  What happened to him after the death of his father?  How is he such a skilled fighter in a variety of combat techniques without any training other than a punching bag (for all we know)?  How did he design such a costume?  Why does he leave his DD calling card when dispatching the bad guy?  Why does he do absolutely nothing to make up for his one Achilles heel, his inability to deal with loud noises?  Ok, I suppose there are logical explanations of all of these things, but you won't find them from watching the film. (Note: the Director's Cut, which runs a half-hour longer than the theatrical release reviewed here, may address some of these issues, although I haven't seen it as of this update).

Last but not least is Ben Affleck.  Sorry ladies, I just don't find him conflicted enough to buy as Matt Murdock.  He is too baby-faced in that costume to be menacing, and his awful trendy hairstyle and shades when not donning the costume are laughable.  Most of the fighting isn't done by him, either using a double or CGI, and when he does a few moves, they come off stiff. 

THE VERDICT

If you can look past the film's major weaknesses, and that's a very big if, Daredevil will certainly be enough to entertain you in its visual aesthetics and super-charged, music-tinged action.  It's superficial and somewhat trite, but that's the comic book world for you.  If you are a fan, and are willing to overlook the fact that Kingpin is Black or that Bullseye and Elektra don't wear their customary garb, Daredevil is likely going to please you the most.  To those unfamiliar, it's all going to come down to whether you prefer glossy action pieces over a good, unique story.   But if it's action you crave, and very good comic book action at that, Daredevil definitely delivers.

-- The Director's Cut DVD adds approximately 30 minutes of footage excised from the theatrical release, while removing some as well.  The original changes were made to shorten the running time of the film, as well as to get the theatrical release to a PG-13 rating.  The longer version is rated R, with some additional brutality and some strong language, with rapper/actor Coolio as a defendant in a case presided over by Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson.  While this cut may be interesting and, in some ways, preferable for those that enjoy the theatrical release, viewers that didn't like the original release will probably find it even more tedious, as it stretches the film out to over two hours in length, with little in the way of interesting new developments to merit a repeat viewing.

-- A spin-off film resulted in 2005 featuring the return of Elektra in a solo adventure. 

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo