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Daredevil

"Daredevil" is a pretender in the realm of bona fide superheroes. Grimly going through the motions and resembling Marvel stablemate Spider-Man in too many ways, this franchise-hungry champion of the underdog brings no sense of fun to his pursuit of bad guys; it's just the fate he's stuck with.

With:
Matt Murdock/Daredevil - Ben Affleck Elektra Natchios - Jennifer Garner Kingpin/Fisk - Michael Clarke Duncan Bullseye - Colin Farrell Urich - Joe Pantoliano Franklin Nelson - Jon Favreau Jack Murdock - David Keith Natchios - Erick Avari Quesada - Paul Ben-Victor Father Everett - Derrick O'Connor Wesley - Leland Orser Young Matt - Scott Terra

“Daredevil” is a pretender in the realm of bona fide superheroes. Grimly going through the motions and resembling Marvel stablemate Spider-Man in too many ways, this franchise-hungry champion of the underdog brings no sense of fun to his pursuit of bad guys; it’s just the fate he’s stuck with. Charm- and humor-free exercise in pushing commercial buttons will ride a massive marketing push, a surfeit of Ben Affleck publicity, the current cache of Marvel, and audience hopes for Spidey-like thrills to boffo openings. But it’s unlikely to be a film auds take to heart, which spells less than gangbuster biz in the long run.

Given that there must be a reason Daredevil has been around as a comic book character since 1964 without ever becoming a household name, the filmmakers have been pushing the notion this blind vigilante is a more emotionally accessible and morally complex character than others of his ilk, even that the story has a Shakespearean dimension. Somehow, that doesn’t sound like much of a selling point with the target audience.

Sure, Matt Murdock was accidentally blinded as a boy and his prizefighter dad was rubbed out by thugs. But he compensated for his loss by becoming fearless and acquiring “super-human sharpness” in his remaining four senses. Matt can sense the proximity of others and detect movements via heartbeats, vibrations and so on, and can bounce down the sides of buildings in his Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood with more speed and dexterity than Spider-Man himself.

Like Peter Parker, Matt has family loss to avenge, comes out at night to take on neighborhood toughs and sees his secret identity threatened by the fourth estate (occasioning endless plugs for the New York Post, which, in a fantasy designed to please Rupert Murdoch, here appears to be the only newspaper in Gotham). He even shares his first kiss with his inamorata in the rain at night.

So much for originality. Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson attacks the story with the single-minded laboriousness of a military campaign, and just as loudly. With Daredevil seemingly on the brink of death, his life flashes before his sightless eyes. After a nearly 20-minute recap of Matt’s trauma-packed youth, pic intro’s Affleck as an attorney who, after losing a case and watching a rapist go free, dons form-fitting burgundy-colored leather gear to dispense justice.

Retribution takes place at a sleazy nightclub, and not only is the action incoherently staged, with enormous jump cuts that flaunt the utter lack of spatial reality, but Daredevil’s ferocious assault represents overkill, given the countless deaths that ensue from his targeting of one man. What kind of hero is this?

Admitting his sins in confession, Matt is chastised by his priest, who then adds that, “I’m not too crazy about the outfit either”; the little cap with horn-like points brings the devil to mind. After meeting in a cafe, Matt hits it off with beauteous Greek shipping heiress Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner) in a strenuous martial arts set-to in a Manhattan playground. Here and much more later on, pic makes use of the talents of Hong Kong action choreographer Cheung Yan Yuen (“Charlie’s Angels”) to push the combat into reduced gravity zones, with results more calculated than thrilling.

Looking fresher are the techniques employed by the convincingly cartoonish hit man Bullseye, played with nasty relish by Colin Farrell. Shaven-headed, extensively pierced and with a dartboard-like target carved on his forehead, Bullseye can fling any small, seemingly harmless projectile with literally deadly accuracy. Bullseye is called in by Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), a business tycoon who’s actually the criminal overlord of New York City, to dispense with Elektra’s father (Erick Avari) after he’s shown the bad judgment of pulling out of a deal.

Bullseye makes it look as though Daredevil killed Elektra’s dad, making further romance tough and setting her on a vengeful path just when Matt/Daredevil has bought into his priest’s view that violence should not be answered by further violence. This conviction lasts about five minutes, as a nocturnal rooftop struggle involving Daredevil, Elektra and Bullseye is just the first of three battles to settle matters once and for all.

Expressing a conflicted and disturbed personality throughout, Affleck sweats, bleeds and suffers through his paces as a guy uncomfortable in his skin, and probably in his costume. Thesp has the rugged physical presence for the role and brings a degree of lightness to his scenes with Matt’s comic-relief law partner (Jon Favreau), but doesn’t project a private enthusiasm at playing a superhero.

In her first bigscreen co-starring role, “Alias” sensation Garner has no trouble holding her own. After sporting a big cigar and fancy threads to maintain an air of utter respectability, the mighty Duncan finally gets down in a climactic fight scene. Director Kevin Smith puts in a brief appearance as a forensic specialist.

Visually, Johnson and lenser Ericson Core keep things very dark, placing the action in a mostly nocturnal and desaturated urban jungle that recalls Alex Proyas’ work in “The Crow” and “Dark City,” without the stylistic elan. Pic is filled with the usual contemporary mannerisms but absent any new moves. Barry Chusid’s production design skillfully blends locations, sets and computer-created backdrops in virtually monochromatic harmony, and effects are sharp; shots of Daredevil careening around buildings are actually more graceful and naturalistic than comparable moments in “Spider-Man,” and presentation of his “Shadow-World” via visualized sonar-like waves is effective. The heaviness of Graeme Revell’s score is surpassed by the noxious aggressiveness of some of the heavy rock laid on the soundtrack.

Popular on Variety

Daredevil

Production: A 20th Century Fox release of a 20th Century Fox and Regency Enterprises presentation in association with Marvel Enterprises of a New Regency/Horseshoe Bay production. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Gary Foster, Avi Arad. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Bernie Williams. Co-producers, Kevin Feige, Becki Cross Trujillo. Directed, written by Mark Steven Johnson.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Ericson Core; editors, Dennis Virkler, Armen Minasian; music, Graeme Revell; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Barry Chusid; art director, James Tocci; set designers, Greg Berry, Lorrie Campbell, Julia Levine, Darrell Wright; set decorator, Victor J. Zolfo; costume designer, James Acheson; sound (Dolby/DTS), Peter J. Devlin; supervising sound editor, John A. Larsen; sound designer, Steve Boeddeker; visual effects supervisor, Rich Thorne; special visual effects, Rhythm & Hues; special visual effects and digital animation, Digital Domain; visual effects, Pixel Magic; stunt coordinator, Jeff Imada; Hong Kong action team choreographer, Cheung Yan Yuen; Hong Kong action team coordinator, Daxing Zhang; assistant director, Kim Winther; second unit director/camera, Alexander Witt; casting, Donna Isaacson, Eyde Belasco. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox studios, L.A., Feb. 11, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 104 MIN.

With: Matt Murdock/Daredevil - Ben Affleck Elektra Natchios - Jennifer Garner Kingpin/Fisk - Michael Clarke Duncan Bullseye - Colin Farrell Urich - Joe Pantoliano Franklin Nelson - Jon Favreau Jack Murdock - David Keith Natchios - Erick Avari Quesada - Paul Ben-Victor Father Everett - Derrick O'Connor Wesley - Leland Orser Young Matt - Scott Terra

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