- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

He's no "Batman." He's no "Spider-Man," either. That doesn't mean Hollywood's latest comic-book-superhero movie isn't a tasty melange of fisticuffs and sticky moral quandaries.
"Daredevil" owes more than a tip of its mask to its predecessors. Every swooping rooftop shot recalls a similar swing by Spider-Man, and the rat-infested streets below hark back to Tim Burton's 1989 take on the Caped Crusader.
"Daredevil" has plenty in its favor, including a star-affirming turn by Colin Farrell as the villainous Bullseye.
Comic-book films typically take one of two paths as cartoon confections ("Superman," "Batman and Robin") or gritty tales of hyperreality ("Batman," "Blade").
"Daredevil" leans toward the latter. Our hero pops pain pills after dispatching a barroom full of bullies. He spills his sins out to his father confessor but cannot promise he won't sin again.
Most significant, he lets one of the bad guys die a grisly death, all in the name of street justice.
"I'm not the bad guy," he pleads at one point, as much to himself as to society.
Ben Affleck is solid if unspectacular as Matt Murdock, a blind attorney righting wrongs in his shadowy Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. Should the justice system falter, Matt tugs on his alter ego's leather bodysuit and dispatches justice, his way, using his extrasensory powers.
The film opens, in true comic-book fashion, by telling us how Daredevil came to be.
Young Matt Murdock is a put-upon child growing up in New York's notorious Hell's Kitchen. His dad (David Keith), an aging palooka with his mouth grafted to the bottle, pays the rent by shaking down welchers. Young Matt sees his father "on the job" one day and darts off, right into the path of a leaking barrel of biomedical waste.
Yes, some superhero origins are less inspired than others.
The accident blinds Matt, but it also supercharges his remaining senses. He can hear a person's blood pulsing through that person's veins. He can "see" objects by detecting how rain bounces off of them. Cinematically, such talents would appear difficult to depict, but director Mark Steven Johnson's visual solutions make Matt's powers tangible.
Flash forward to the present, and Matt's dual life leaves him in a physical and emotional heap. He gets some support from Franklin "Foggy" Nelson (Jon Favreau), his wisecracking legal partner. The personal demons, however, can't be assuaged by pithy banter.
When Matt happens upon Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner of "Alias") at the corner diner, it's love at first sense.
The two quickly engage in a flirtatious fight at a nearby playground that is at once ridiculous and arresting. Their quirky courtship, alas, is short-lived. Elektra's father is tied in with Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), a criminal mastermind responsible for much of the city's illegal activity.
Kingpin employs a crazed enforcer named Bullseye (Mr. Farrell) to dispatch anyone who disapproves of his reign. Bullseye never misses his prey, whether firing bullets, knives or even paper clips hurled at lethal speed.
Soon, Elektra is in Bullseye's cross hairs, and Daredevil must break Kingpin's spell over the city before she winds up on the receiving end of lethal office supplies.
Daredevil fanatics are drawn to the character's very real frailties. He broods. He can't handle relationships, a trait lazily sketched out by a phone message left by an ex-girlfriend.
The choice of Mr. Johnson, whose previous credits include directing "Simon Birch" and writing two "Grumpy Old Men" features, to bring such a conflicted character to life hardly inspired confidence.
Mr. Johnson's handiwork here should win him some converts. His affection for the source material suffuses every scene. Fan and one-time Daredevil scribe Kevin Smith (the director of "Clerks" and "Dogma") makes a smart cameo, and the names of several Daredevil artists of yore are slipped into the background to make die-hard fans titter in recognition.
Like other superhero films, "Daredevil" has plotting that is more accidental than structurally sound. Mr. Johnson drops his colorful characters throughout the city and lets them bump into each other, like players in an old magnetized football game. One can dismiss such languid storytelling as an offshoot of the story's comic-book beginnings, but when these tales find themselves on the big screen, they should adapt to the medium's narrative demands.
The Daredevil-Elektra romance, while portrayed sweetly, is too thin to make much impact.
Sadly, much of "Daredevil" feels as rushed as their affections.
Still, given its pulpy roots, "Daredevil" offers enough exclamation-point action scenes to thrill, especially given the leaden competition this time of the movie year.

TITLE: "Daredevil"
RATING: PG-13 (Comic-book-style violence, drug use, a brief sexual encounter)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Gary Foster and Avi Arad.
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

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