Occupying a unique place in the pantheon of comic-book crusaders, Daredevil loiters in the rooftop shadows somewhere between Marvel's own colourful New York superhero Spider-Man and DC's altogether darker-themed haunted avenger, Batman - absorbing traits of both in the process, yet still coming out as a fiercely individual and striking character in his own right. Notoriously difficult to bring to the screen, despite the massive successes of both Spidey and the X-Men at the box office, Daredevil seemed to be carrying that stunted stigma that had partially kept him out of the tolerance levels of all but the most devout of comic-book kids. Whilst Stan (The Man) Lee had a habit of creating flawed heroes - eternally trying to prove that the underdog always has the potential to overcome - his birthing of Hell's Kitchen lawyer by day, costumed crime-fighting brawler-in-burgundy by night, Matt Murdoch (aka Daredevil, The Man Without Fear), was as radical and as risk-taking as they come. Orphaning your hero at a tender age was de rigour by this stage for the 2D pencil and shade brigade, but blinding him as well was a pure outrage that many readers found difficult to accept. And, for my sins, even I tended to avoid his comics when I was a kid - for this very reason, I'm ashamed to admit. But I, along with plenty of others, were completely mistaken, for when we finally caught up with Mad Matt and his nocturnal antics, there was all the power, nobility and do-or-die self-sacrificial life-on-the-line heroics that we adored and couldn't get enough of. Plus, Daredevil had issues and an inner-life that Peter Parker only tentatively scratched the surface of.
Grounded far more in the seething underbelly of a violent city than prancing about above it, Daredevil was actually noticeably more adult in tone than many of his colourful cohorts. Thus, when his filmic interpretation, from lifelong fanboy Mark Steven Johnson, who would go on to helm Ghost Rider, finally swung onto screens in 2003, his tale was more pulverising, bloodier and more savage than many had expected. Even in its now jettisoned theatrical cut - only this more violent and better structured Director's Cut can be found on this BD release - the atmosphere was darker, more oppressive and dangerous. Bullied as a kid even though his old man is the broad-armed pugilist known as the Devil, young Matt Murdoch is blinded by toxic chemicals and forced to come to terms with a dangerous environment that he can no longer see. But, in the mutation-rife world of Mighty Marvel, this set-back is actually an avenue that can not only be turned to an advantage but positively benefited from. Young Matt's other senses are not so much heightened by way of compensation for his lack of sight, but enhanced exponentially to the point where vision would probably be a hindrance. Using super-sensitive echo-locating mental sonar - he can map-out his urban battleground with pin-point accuracy as well as hear a liar's heartbeat, the screams of victims five blocks away, or the cocking of a rifle from across a street - and the steel-honed fighting skills that his father-honouring pride has instilled in him. Not only able to beat the very bullies who once made his life a misery, Matt is now able to vault his way above the streets using drainpipes, rooftops and water-towers as his personal training ground. But when his heroic father, played brilliantly by David Keith, refuses to throw a fight and pays the ultimate price for his pride, Matt's career path is chosen for him. Becoming a lawyer whose crusade is to defend the underdog and the downtrodden of his own neighbourhood, the adult Matt (Ben Affleck) gains notoriety and a level of kudos for championing those who have no-one else to turn to. But, as part of the legal system, he also knows that the law is unable to stem to tide of corruption of the escalation of violent crime under the massive influence and control of New York's villainous mastermind, an entity going by the sinister moniker of the Kingpin (The Green Mile's Michael Clark Duncan).
So, using his super-senses and martial arts training, he becomes the crimson-clad Daredevil - someone who is above the law and keen to exact natural justice on those who slime their way out of trouble in the courtroom. When events lead him towards uncovering and, indeed, tackling the Kingpin, he also meets and falls in love with Jennifer Garner's electrifying assassin, Elektra, whose father has just foolishly put himself on the Kingpin's hit-list, making an already difficult situation far more deadly. Add a pesky journalist, Ben Urich, played by Joe (“Joey Pants”) Pantoliano, who is hell-bent on finding out and making public the secret identity of this supposed urban myth, Daredevil, and Hell's Kitchen just keeps getting hotter.
“I want revenge.”
“Revenge won't make the pain go away. Trust me ... I know.”
Affleck does the role proud. He not only nails the fighting, crusading side of things and the alter-ego lawyer shtick - aided enormously by the charismatic Jon Favreau as his partner Franklin “Foggy” Nelson - but he does the unthinkable, as well, and actually makes you believe that Matt lives and breathes with the consequences of his actions. A night out bashing crims and perps on the noggin reduces him to a pain-wracked state of semi-crippled melancholy that no amount of pill-popping and floatation-tank slumber can staunch. His joy-de-vivre via his day-job - sparky airhead banter with Favreau and giddy excitement at exploiting his disability for flirtatious reasons with any attractive young ladies he can, ahem, bump into - is marvellously cross-referenced with a dark sense of regret, pathos and loneliness when things go bad. His nifty rainfall-vision trick is a pure device that, to unsentimental minds, is total manipulation. But to me and, I hope, many others, there is an undeniable humanness to his sharing of such a secret with someone he holds dear. Thus, when events conspire to turn tragic, his do-or-die attempt to win back Electra's heart is rendered all the more poignantly heartbreaking when, during the downpour at her father's funeral, she simply, but symbolically, raises her umbrella so that she may mask herself from Matt. Coupled with the MTV-guided placement of Evanescence's dazzlingly yearning My Immortal the effect is amazingly moving. Superhero movies these day tend to have an emotional core that is designed to snag the breath from even the most macho of audience members, but Daredevil, above all others, was the one that I least expected to be stirred by. Yet this sequence packs a clout that is surprisingly affecting for all its tick-box manipulation. Surprisingly, it is the most minute of facial movements that Affleck makes that give the scene its throat-bocking gravity.
“I know who you are.You're the blind lawyers from Hell's Kitchen.”
“Actually, he's blind ... I'm deaf!”
Favreau, who is of course now a major player elsewhere within the Marvel cinematic field of dreams with his critically-lauded superhit Iron Man, gets much more screentime in this version of the film and, with the nastier spin on events and the greasily corrupt sub-plot ticking over to give the film a decidedly two-pronged narrative thrust, his quirky gurning sidekick becomes a very necessary ingredient to help balance out the grim overtones. One thing, though, as good as he is and as enjoyable as his presence certainly is, you just know that he is creasing-up the very second that Johnson calls “Cut!” He just can't seem to tame that ever-present smirk of his, can he?
Then we get Garner's lithe and acrobatic agent of vengeance, Elektra. Well, this is where the film disappoints, I'm afraid. As gorgeous as the Alias star undoubtedly is and as energetically battle-hungry, she is far too pouty and glamour-puss to capture the rage and exotic finesse of such an alluring assassin. Her place within this particular plotline is too convenient and shallow for both herself and Matt Murdoch, Johnson quite explicitly determined to give his one-shot approach to the material everything he can dredge up from the comics. Garner does well with the skirmishing, her bout with Double-D a punishing duel of misplaced hatred, but her scrap with Bullseye becomes a sadistic and gut-wrenching sequence that is quite eye-popping in its savagery. Her cavorting ballet of Sai-twirling is certainly something to savour, too, although is it just me, or does she a little obviously clumsy considering her supposed expertise with them? But the inevitable romantic angle works courtesy of Affleck, alone - Garner's lingering slo-mo facials (all enhanced green eyes and pop video glitz) tend to irritate after a while and the lack of a genuine spark from her side of things dampens the fireworks more than the odd rain-machine. Neither of them is a terrific actor but, for me, it is Affleck who digs deeper into the emotion, Garner perhaps realising that she is, to all intents and purposes, just the babe of the piece. This lack of genuine vitality and character ownership was further exasperated in the woeful spin-off Elektra (2004) from Rob Bowman, nixing what is actually one of Marvel's best and most exciting female creations. And the less said about the patently ridiculous sparring/flirting fight that the two have in the playground the better, eh?
“It's a shame you came here wounded. I would have loved to fight you in your prime.”
Over on the other side of the fence, the villainy in Daredevil is decidedly nasty and vindictive, yet somehow just a little too obvious, as well. Michael Clark Duncan is supremely prehistoric in size, voice and sheer presence but he lacks the credible wit and charm that such an elevated thug of his stature would have attained in what has surely been a meteoric climb to the top of the criminal food-chain. He may be a demoniacally imposing villain in the comics, but Duncan, in spite of his truly gargantuan build does very little with the role other than change the character's race. Strutting about in sharp suits and sniffing lush roses may be his hallmarks, but his evocation of true style and menace don't completely convince. This extended version does, however, give him more opportunity to flex those mighty muscles in the final confrontation - which is far better now - and in the great moment when he proves a point by cracking a skull and throttling a neck with as much ease as we might display when pulling back a ring-pull. And the throaty roar of rage he issues as he does so is a firm reminder to how great he could have been in the Planet Of The Apes retread has Burton's heart really been in it. His weasel-faced gutter-snipe assistant, Wesley (played by familiar face Leland Orser from Se7en and Alien Resurrection) is also a mite too whining and unassuming for such a powerful position. Although he is designed to get on our nerves, he does so merely because Kingpin just wouldn't have employed such a suck-ass in the first place.
Much more street-level abandon is delivered courtesy of Oirish bad-boy Colin Farrell as the branded-bonced assassin, Bullseye. Farrell is clearly enjoying himself as the dexterous hitman who can utilise peanuts and paper-clips as well as the more conventional knives, ninja-stars and shards of broken glass as instruments of murder and mass destruction. Somehow deviating massively from his page-turning antecedent yet still retaining his madcap machismo and vocal flair, Farrell is joyously OTT. His smug - and obviously inebriated - showing-off at the dartboard in the most unconvincing of English pubs (distressingly, not one but two extras in there are sporting T-shirts that I have!) is a great introduction, but this is expertly surpassed by his twitchy, jittery annoyance-slaying on the plane via NASA-precise trajectory of a flicked peanut. His encounter with Elektra on the rooftops notwithstanding, the battle with Daredevil in the church is fabulously inventive, even if the visuals don't quite match the intentions of the director. This, of course, is an element that seems to dog the film as it proceeds. Where the bar-room attack near the start is wildly strenuous and visually satisfying - surfing a hood down the stair railing, knocking teeth out and gleefully indulging in jailhouse-rock - this CG and wire-work aided kick-about swaps down 'n' dirty physicality for FX excesses that don't gel all that well. That said though, this is still a lot of fun - with both Bullseye and Daredevil laying siege to a vast ecclesiastical organ and turning stained-glass into guided missiles. Master Cheung-Yan Yuen works wonders with the action and Jeff Imada, typically, embellishes the film with some amazingly conceived and executed stunt work - the high-flying boot under the chin that takes Bullseye off his bike may look very Matrixy, but it is still done beautifully. However, as kinetic and hyper as much of the mayhem is, the copious use of wires and of a balletic gracefulness that sidesteps the laws-of-physics does tend to stick out a mile.
“I like the quiet.”
“I don't think so, son. I think you like the solitude.”
On the scoring front, lesser action composer Graeme (Freddy Vs Jason, Below) Revell provides one of his better soundtracks. His customary use of dense percussion makes for a gloomy main theme that feels more TV crime-show than superhero-fanfare ... though this is probably apt considering Matt's daytime gig as a lawyer. Plus, his use of very urban dynamics is perfectly accurate for the locale in which the story takes place. Themes for Bullseye and Kingpin are riotously extravagant and,for once, the overt use of rock songs does not feel as much generic as it does in-keeping with the mood of the piece. Plus, we've got his orchestra beautifully augmenting Evanescence during that tear-inducing funeral scene with some searingly potent strings.
With a smart and involving sub-plot concerning Coolio's incriminated murderer - an entire storyline that was unceremoniously dropped from the theatrical cut - now reinstated, other odds and sods removed (the actually quite cool confessions with Derrick O' Connor's long-suffering priest, for instance), and an raised level of sex and violence - there's even a slight top-lifting flash spicing things up in the bikers' den - this version far exceeds its earlier truncated and “safer” take. Also exhibiting oodles of directorial panache - nice use of reflections in glasses, a swirling zoom that sees us meet brazen killer Quesada flambéing his tequila before all hell breaks loose and some nice dizzying spins on that most clichéd American cinematic riff of top-down views of New York supplying eye-candy aplenty, there is now much more to enjoy. Thus, Mark Steven Johnson's love-letter to his childhood hero actually makes for a quite exciting entry in the crowded house that is the superhero movie genre. Daredevil may have super-powered senses (other than sight, that is) and be as agile as a leather-clad gazelle, but there is something achingly vulnerable about Affleck's interpretation that cannot help but endear him. He may also stick-fight his way through legions of goons, beat relentlessly on the head of a street-thug in the pay of the Kingpin, and not worry about killer-rapists getting cut in two by subway trains - but there is still something chivalrous about his campaign that was swiftly forgotten in many other similar franchises, something honourable in the shadow of his avenging primal code that marks Matt Murdoch out as a hero cut from a slightly different cloth than many of this brethren. The religious aspect could have been embellished a little bit more, with the persecuted innocence of Matt's saga somewhat abbreviated from the books - although the imagery of a red devil atop a church spire is actually quite iconic when you think about it - and the pain and pathos of the early dual life when juxtaposed with the flippancy of his relationship with Foggy Nelson is too easily nudged aside in favour of the escalating plot, but this is a determinedly assured evocation of the comic-book character that definitely gains weight and importance with this Director's Cut.
Therefore, Daredevil comes highly recommended.