What is the man without fear afraid of?
We open on a still, quiet shot, a haunting frame of a rat walking over a pool of blood dripping in front of a church. As we pan up the window frame, with quick flashbacks cutting in and out as the music crescendos, we reach the top, helicopter spotlights shining on a wounded man in a devil costume grasping onto the holy cross. This is easily the film’s master shot, and its influence quite possibly lasts throughout the rest of the film, even if nothing else ever comes to live up with this establishing shot.
The man we are looking at is Daredevil, and unless you read the comics, you would never have guessed that he’s blind. Growing up as a young boy in Hell’s Kitchen, Matthew Murdock (Ben Affleck) was the son of former boxer Jack “The Devil” Murdock (David Keith), nicknamed for his brutal fighting style towards his opponents. One day while skating past a construction site, Matt got in the way of a truck carrying barrels of radioactive chemicals when a bar suddenly punctures the metal, spilling the lethal chemical into young Matt’s eyes.
He lost his vision, but what he gained changed him forever. When he woke up in a hospital bed the next day, all of his senses were enhanced to superhuman levels. He could feel the fabrics of his eye bandages without even touching them. He could smell the aroma of bleach permeating off of the tiles in the hallway outside of his room. He could hear the sound of construction work, the cars beeping and the heartbeats of other human beings from miles away. But most impressively, his sense of sound gave him a “radar sense”, allowing him to form images of the people and things that he saw in front of him. He wasn’t just a boy any longer: he became a living sonar.
After witnessing the death of his father (I guess “hearing” his death if you want to get technical), Matt vows to never be afraid of the things he can’t see. To find the killer and bring him to justice. To seek justice, one way or another. To become Daredevil.
Here is a film that has an irresistible sense of style, a movie that takes us through its lavish stunts, choreography, and fight sequences and makes them exhilarating to sit through. It is really exciting, seeing these characters pulling off these crazy, mind-blowing leaps and bounds over buildings, in bars, and on rooftops as they fight each other with lightning-quick movements, attacks and reflexes. It’s even more fascinating seeing it from Daredevil’s perspective, watching bullets fly past him while he slides on railing, flips over tables, and knocks criminals out with his staff and nunchuks. Most would probably view these scenes as silly or preposterous, with characters flying from building to building as if they were in The Matrix. My response? I don’t really care. The fight scenes are choreographed and filmed in a very specific way to where its enjoyable, almost as if the laws of physics don’t matter in a movie like this. You more or less watch it for the joy of seeing the sensational effects rather than criticizing how preposterous and unrealistic it looks.
Oh yes, the action is excellent. Compared to the action, the performances are… inconsistent. Not bad, mind you, just inconsistent, and not all of it is entirely the actors fault. Affleck at least does a good job to keep us interested in between the sensational fight scenes, and even offers some very nice emotional moments where his character experiences both fear and vulnerability. Michael Clarke Duncan, most known as the pure-hearted and innocent miracle-maker in The Green Mile plays here the antonym of that role, a kingpin so foul and villanous that its shocking to see him make the transition. The highlight performance is in breakout actor Collin Ferrel as a hitman named Bullseye, and his presence on the screen is infectious. He is terrifying, his motions, speech and mannerisms forming this character who is so set on making his jobs perfect that he will kill anyone that makes him do something as simple as missing. He is mortifying, and definitely not the kind of guy you want to sit next to on a plane. The only actress I didn’t care much for in this movie was Jennifer Garner, who played a love interest of Matt’s named Elektra, but we’ll get a more into that in a bit.
For simple entertainment, the movie is acceptable. The fight scenes are great, the actors are fitting in their roles and the story advances in a form of pulpy comic book violence, the kind you expect to see when you open a Frank Miller comic and see two superhuman acrobats fighting all over the page.
The problems don’t start at the fight scenes or in its cast: they start at the hands of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, and that’s a problem because those are two areas that should be the strongest in any film. Johnson, who directed the critically-favorable Simon Birch before this obviously has his “rookie” cap on because the film is so lopsided. It’s so freakingly inconsistent, so much so to the point where I can name an equal number of scenes that I liked side-by-side with the scenes that I disliked.
Do I really need to write out a list? The script switches from serious to silly. So does the acting. The tone can’t decide whether it wants to be dark and dreary or smirking and tongue-in-cheek. I mentioned early in this review that we were introduced with a dark, mesmerizing shot that hooked our attention to the screen. Would you take this movie just as seriously, however, if I told you that there was scene later in the movie where blind lawyer Matt Murdock was kung-fu-fighting against Elektra at a children’s park in broad daylight in public? Probably not, no.
Look, in the eyes of a critic (and I’m not talking about myself), this movie failed. The tone is off-beat, the acting is off-kilter, the scripting is inconsistent, and on that note, so are the visuals. And yet here I stand, giving this movie a marginal positive rating. Why? Because I liked it, that’s why. Because I sat down, looked at the movie, compared the good side-by-side with the bad, and ultimately, the good won me over.
I know that won’t be the same case for other viewers, and others are likely to hate the movie for its silliness, for its half-completed visuals, for its inconsistent scripting, filming, editing, and even acting. That’s fine. Different movies appeal to different tastes, and Daredevil won’t appeal to all of them. In the genre of superhero movies, there are many obviously superior to this one, including the recently-released Spider-man and X-men movies. If we are going to admit what it is worse than, however, let’s not be forget that Batman and Robin and Howard The Duck also exists. No, that last one was not a typo.