Movie review, 'Daredevil'

"Daredevil," which stars Ben Affleck as yet another Marvel Comics hero, is a blockbuster wannabe that seems to touch all bases. It gives us scene after scene of charismatic stars, ultra-glitzy production, heart-pumping rock music and rock-'em-sock-'em action. But "Daredevil" lacks the spectacle and sense of fun and dynamism of a movie like "Spider-Man," even though that's what its makers obviously want it to be and even though its hero, in many ways, is just as interesting and vulnerably human a creation.

That hero is blind Hell's Kitchen lawyer Matt Murdock, who defends the underprivileged by day and soars by night as the masked crime-fighter Daredevil. Affleck plays Murdock/Daredevil and, unlike Tobey Maguire in "Spider-Man" or Michael Keaton in 1989's "Batman," Affleck looks more like a hero when he's out of his costume than he does wearing it.

As lawyer Matt, Affleck is breezy and sexy, a big, self-confident and irreverent guy who flirts with beautiful women and puts down pompous snobs and villains. As Daredevil, a tortured hero in a tight red rubbery-looking outfit, he seems a bit thick and lumbering. And so does the movie.

"Daredevil" starts off fast and snappy, like another hip comic-book epic, but it lacks the storytelling verve of the better superhero movies like Tim Burton's "Batman" and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man." Those pictures played with our sense of wonder or nostalgia - and so, in a way, did that other recent Marvel Comics movie, "X-Men." They were fun to watch because of the loving way they elaborated the old pop myths of the superhero crime-fighters and their bizarre origins and peculiar lives.

"Daredevil" begins that way. Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson and star Affleck are both fans of the longtime Stan Lee comic, and they've lovingly reproduced its origin story and a lot of its characters. Jennifer Garner (of "Alias") plays martial-arts princess Elektra Natchios, Jon Favreau ("Swingers") is Matt's comic sidekick Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, Michael Clarke Duncan is the evil gang lord Wilson Fisk (a.k.a. "Kingpin"), and Colin Farrell steals the whole movie in a full-out hambone performance as maniacal knife-throwing hit man Bullseye.

Though it tries hard, there's something ugly and chaotic about "Daredevil." The pace of the dialogue is too slow and overemphatic, and many of the scenes have a perfunctory feel, like comic-book panels redrawn too many times.

Maybe devotion to a comic-book hero isn't enough. Johnson immerses us in the Daredevil fantasy world (one curiously reminiscent of "Gangs of New York"). We first see Matt as a Hell's Kitchen kid (played by Scott Terra) stung into a life of vengeance by the murder of his dad, Jack, an aging boxer on the comeback trail who defies the Mob's demand that he throw a crucial fight. When Jack is killed, young Matt, blinded earlier in an accident, swears to avenge him.

Devoting himself to an intense physical and mental regimen, Matt grows up to be a socially conscious lawyer and masked crime-fighter, all the while seeking his dad's killers. Eventually, he joins forces with Elektra, a martial-artist powerhouse whose father (Erick Avari) is another murder victim, but who wrongly believes Daredevil was responsible.

It's a typical Daredevil story, the kind that original writer Lee or '70s-'80s writer-artist Frank Miller could have knocked off superbly in a couple of issues. That's the problem: A movie needs more. Most of the comic-book myths and heroes invented by Lee in the '60s had a solidity, depth and even a literary quality other comic heroes and worlds lacked - which is why we liked them. "Daredevil" is supposed to be darker and more intense than the other Marvel movies, and Daredevil himself more fallible. He's a mortal, like Batman, and though his other senses have developed to compensate for his blindness, and though he's also a crack martial artist, he has no mutant or alien superpowers. After every fight he has to feed himself painkillers to recuperate. That mortality should make the story more interesting, but the movie still seems strained - as uncomfortable in its own superhero suit as Affleck often is.

Daredevil's blindness makes him an unusual hero, and the movie has a clever way of showing us the effects of the super-sensory skills he's developed as compensation - the way he "sees" through ultra-sensitive senses of hearing and touch. And it shows us how Daredevil is ambivalently received by the public and the media, with determined New York Post reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano) following his tracks.

Despite all that, the movie is loud, clanging and unimaginative. Johnson is best known for his scripts for the "Grumpy Old Men" comedies and for the glossy, somewhat sappy "Simon Birch" - three shallow, likable films. Despite his highly charismatic cast, this one is even shallower.

Favreau's Foggy is a passable sidekick. But there's little sense of transformation and elevation when Affleck makes the switch to hero. (With all its churches and confession scenes, this movie seems to be trying for a dubious religious exaltation - and that affects Affleck's performance, too.)

Garner is a knockout in several senses of the word, with a simmering face that reminds you of Ursula Andress in her Bond Girl days, but her Elektra tends to be all surface. Duncan doesn't radiate enough raw evil as Kingpin. By default, Farrell snatches the movie as Bullseye, a mugging killer with class. (Since Bullseye's last appearance occurs midway through the final credits, don't walk out too soon.)

"Daredevil" is slick, expensive and filled with good-looking actors flexing muscles, but once it grabs our attention it doesn't really reward it. Daredevil the guy may be "The Man Without Fear," but this movie doesn't have fear - or sheer wonder and marvel - enough.

2 stars (out of 4) "Daredevil"
Directed and written by Mark Steven Johnson; based on the Marvel Comics character and comic books by Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Frank Miller; photographed by Ericson Core; edited by Armen Minasian, Dennis Virkler; production designed by Barry Chusid; music by Graeme Revell; produced by Arnon Milchan, Gary Foster, Avi Arad. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday, Feb. 14. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: PG-13 (action/violence, some sensuality).
Matt Murdock/ Daredevil - Ben Affleck
Elektra Natchios - Jennifer Garner
Bullseye - Colin Farrell
Kingpin/Wilson Fisk - Michael Clarke Duncan
Franklin "Foggy" Nelson - Jon Favreau
Ben Urich - Joe Pantoliano
Jack Murdoch - David Keith Young Matt Murdock - Scott Terra

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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