Outfitted for disaster

Stale `Daredevil' is handicapped by lack of vision

February 14, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

How did an embarrassment of comic-book riches become simply an embarrassment as a movie? Chalk it up to mistaking the fannish enthusiasm of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson for instinct or skill.

Before penning the script and taking the reins on Daredevil, Johnson was best known for the scripts to Grumpy and Grumpier Old Men. But he managed to convince this film's producers that because of his passion for the comic book he was perfect for the job. He's going to make a lot of young men grumpy with this movie.

Daredevil (which debuted in 1964) is Marvel Comics' corkscrew twist on DC Comics' Batman. Daredevil, like Batman, tells the tale of an orphan who turns himself into a fearsome fighter for justice. But Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a Gotham City playboy; Daredevil's alter ego, Matt Murdock, works as a storefront lawyer in New York's Hell's Kitchen. And if Batman has the gifts that come from workouts in the gym and experiments in the lab, fate has dealt Daredevil a physical handicap - blindness - and offset it with heightened hearing, touch and smell, as well as a unique, unerring "radar sense."

"Origin stories" are often the best part of comic-book movies, but Johnson botches even this in his film version of Daredevil, a cheerless, clumsy piece of mythmaking. As in the comic, the same accidental chemical bath that costs Matt his sight gives him superpowers. And, once again, the murder of his boxer father for refusing to take a dive compels Matt to don a horned red-leather suit and become a vigilante. Unfortunately, Johnson frames the birth of this hero with a vision of him near death, clinging to the cross on the roof of a cathedral and then crawling inside, where he nestles in the arms of his priest. A spectacle this dour doesn't need such an apocalyptic introduction; this movie contains as many crucifixes as any three Scorsese films combined.

Comic-book films are one of the few forms where exposition can be fun, as it is in the first few reels of Spider-Man. Too bad Johnson plays catch-up with his own flashback structure from the opening minutes, hurrying through a potentially magical unveiling. A blind and bullied boy discovering he has a whole arsenal at his fingertips and toetips, nostrils and ears - what an opportunity for a filmmaker to luxuriate in the range of his performers and the audiovisual wonders of moviemaking!

But Johnson brings nothing memorable out of actor Scott Terra as young Matt, and is monumentally unimaginative at suggesting how he grows conscious of his burgeoning super abilities and learns to bend them to his will. Because Johnson shows little knack for composition or sound design before things get all science-fictiony, when he starts amplifying the sound or using digital effects to suggest the radar within Matt's head, he achieves confusion instead of jolting clarity. (His touch is so wooden that he does better with Daredevil's multi-use cane.)

Johnson cobbles together a story pitting Daredevil against Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), the boss of bosses in New York, and Bullseye (Colin Farrell), Kingpin's wildman assassin, who uses anything as a weapon and prides himself on never missing. It also introduces us, in flat and abrupt fashion, to Daredevil's troubled true love, Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), the martial-artist daughter of a Greek tycoon.

Johnson spends all his energy tying the characters into Daredevil's cycle of revenge or making them re-enact variations on his story. Although Duncan exudes a mammoth, malevolent charisma as a thug in a three-piece suit, and Garner betrays flashes of the amazingly elastic, poignancy-streaked beauty she displays on TV's Alias, Johnson reduces them to vectors in the plot. Only Bullseye has any vitality. Farrell's sadistic scampishness has heat; the actor makes you feel that Bullseye is so unhinged that he's lucid only when he hits a target.

At least someone hits the target in this movie. Jon Favreau, as Matt's affable, roly-poly partner "Foggy" Nelson, can't even pretend his jokes are funny (sample: he says that Elektra Natchios sounds like a Mexican appetizer).

The first time you see Ben Affleck as the adult Matt in court, using a witness' own heartbeat as a lie detector, he promises to reveal a mischievous dash beneath his blankness. No such luck. And as Daredevil, he disappears completely in his outfit.

When Michael Keaton first played Batman, he said Jack Nicholson advised him to let the costume do the acting - not bad advice for Keaton, a fine actor then prone to jumping out of his skin. Here, Affleck really does let the costume do the acting. He brings new meaning to the phrase "empty suit."

Daredevil

Starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Rated PG-13

Released by 20th Century Fox

Time 103 minutes

Sun Score *

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