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'Daredevil' is no Spider-Man

Friday, February 14, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

With its success at conveying the realistic human qualities of both superhero and supervillain, "Spider-Man" raised the bar significantly for subsequent movies based on comic-book characters.

RATING: PG-13 for action/violence and some sensuality.

STARRING: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan.

DIRECTOR: Mark Steven Johnson.


For a short while, it appears the new film "Daredevil" might make the leap. But it crashes all too quickly, flattening the characters like they were still on the page in favor of beefing up the Biff! Pow! action scenes.

Daredevil was born Matt Murdock, son of a boxer from Hell's Kitchen. Blinded as a child after being splashed with toxic chemicals, the accident intensified his other senses. Matt (Ben Affleck) can function not only as a lawyer for the downtrodden by day but also as a vigilante crimefighter by night.

This guy has issues. He dispenses "justice" in memory of his old man (David Keith), who was killed after refusing to throw a fight. But his punishment often exceeds the crime. He dresses in a devil's costume but hangs out in a Catholic church, where he goes to confession but doesn't feel cleansed. But the movie doesn't take the religious aspect seriously -- it's all for effect.

The opening flashback that explains Daredevil's origin is the movie's best sequence. Young Matt (Scott Terra) gets picked on by bullies and knows his father is past his prime. When he first wakes up after the accident to the deafening roar of everyday sounds, unable to see, not knowing where he is, young Terra and director Mark Steven Johnson depict Matt's disorientation with such force that the audience begins to feel a bit of his panic.

The first of the film's many letdowns comes when Daredevil goes after a rapist who was acquitted in court. He assaults the man in a bar and then proceeds to attack everyone else in the place with martial-arts flips, bouncing off his victims as if they were props in a pinball game, all to a rock soundtrack.

Inexplicably, the scene ends with flames artfully rising from three pool tables. Maybe that's because the light is so low otherwise that you can barely see what's happening, even when Johnson isn't frenetically cutting from one shot to the next. It's the action version of a music video. So much for emulating "Spider-Man."

There isn't much plot or character development even when Daredevil meets the girl of his dreams. Elektra (Jennifer Garner) is the daughter of a very rich man who works for the crime lord Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). Dad taught her how to defend herself -- when Matt Murdock tries to pick her up, she engages him in a martial-arts battle. It's preposterous, but Garner is so good at it that you don't care. Did anyone consider casting her as Lara Croft? It's a natural.

Ultimately, Daredevil must work his way to Kingpin after dealing with an assassin named Bullseye (he has one carved into his forehead), played in full maniac mode by Colin Farrell. Along the way, our hero must come to terms with his angst.

But you can't have it both ways. "Daredevil" can go over the top or play for real emotion. It tries for both, but they're basically incompatible.

Alas, I have to say it yet again. A better actor than Ben Affleck might have made something more of this, although a stronger script and a director more interested in content than in style would have helped, too. Affleck tries to register the character's inner torment, but it keeps coming out as little more than a scowl.

I know, he's a pretty boy. He doesn't have to be able to act. But that's not true. I thought Affleck might be OK in this because it's a comic-book action hero. I forgot that it's a Marvel Comics hero, replete with flaws -- in which case skin deep isn't nearly deep enough.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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