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It’s no accident that Stan Lee created the enduring Marvel superheroes in the early ’60s, the period that defined the modern teenager. Like anyone experiencing puberty, his typical protagonist gained new powers but with them new burdens. One of the last creations of Lee’s 1960-1964 hot streak, Daredevil made the notion of a handicapped hero literal: He was blinded in an accident that also—thanks to the errant radioactivity that formed so many Marvel characters—enhanced his other four senses. This happened when alter ego Matt Murdock was still a boy, but unlike his spiritual cousin Spider-Man, Daredevil was not an adolescent. A youngish crusading lawyer, he battled crime in both his street clothes and his skintight red superhero togs.
Daredevil remained a second-string Marvel character until 1980, when a next-generation star, writer-artist Frank Miller, took over the comic. Influenced by Will Eisner and Japanese manga, Miller made Daredevil darker, more angular, and more cinematic. It was Miller who introduced Daredevil foil Elektra, who, despite being the daughter of a Greek diplomat, was essentially Japanese: a lithe black-haired beauty who had trained as a ninja. Elektra became such a sensation that, after being killed by supervillain Bullseye, she had to be resurrected. Today’s Marvel, recuperating from its ’90s bankruptcy, now publishes both Elektra and Daredevil. The latter, of course, is the latest Lee creation to go Hollywood.
Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, a childhood Daredevil fan who previously directed the sappy Simon Birch, combines Lee’s and Miller’s versions of the character and then catapults the composite into 2003. Daredevil tries to crush the resulting incongruities with flash, noise, and sheer velocity. Frantic with nu-metal bruiser ballads, MTV-style pans and cuts, a Graeme Revell goth-rock score, and blurry blue-tinted passages that represent its hero’s perceptions, the film isn’t half so amiable as Spider-Man. Basically, Johnson has turned Daredevil into the Crow.
Opening with a battered Daredevil (Ben Affleck) hugging a cross atop a church, the movie zooms in on the hero’s dead eyes and then back into his past. Lee’s origin story is presented with few alterations: Matt grows up in Hell’s Kitchen, the child of an alcoholic boxer who disappoints his son by becoming a mob enforcer. Jack “the Devil” Murdock (David Keith) eventually redeems himself by returning to the ring and refusing to take a dive, for which he’s murdered. (This section of the film includes a Lee cameo and a nod to John Romita, who briefly drew Daredevil but is associated more with Spider-Man.) Except for Matt’s becoming a pre-teen mutant, this chapter is essentially a ’40s-Hollywood boxing melodrama, so it’s a little jarring when the film hurtles back into the present, where Matt/Daredevil is an ineffective lawyer but a heck of a vigilante—by night, he brutalizes the crooks he can’t nail in court—a characterization that owes more to Miller’s Dark Knight than his Daredevil.
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Like so many superhero movies, Daredevil ignores the pace and continuity of classic Marvel comics, which developed plots and protagonists over months or even years. It tries to pack too many established characters (if not all that much of a story) into a mere two hours. Murdock happens to meet Elektra (Jennifer Garner, who was combat trained in TV’s Alias) in a old-style coffeeshop, and the two spar in a pocket park—the most feral cinematic mating ritual since, well, The Recruit two weeks ago—before going to bed. Meanwhile, gangland potentate the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan, playing a guy who was white in the comic) hires Irish assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell, trying to out-camp Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker) to kill Elektra’s father, who’s been transformed for the film from a diplomat into a “businessman.” Elektra initially blames Daredevil for the slaying, so they fight again before the final—but not sequel-stifling—showdowns with Bullseye and Kingpin.
Whereas Spider-Man was better at portraying the human than the superhuman aspects of its saga, Daredevil scants the nonaction sequences. Murdock’s partner, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Jon Favreau), barely exists, and reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano) doesn’t do much except provide product-placement opportunities for the New York Post. (In the comic, he works for the Daily Bugle, Peter Parker’s sometime employer.) Johnson depends less on characterization than choreography, with Hong Kong (and Charlie’s Angels) veteran Cheung Yan Yuen pacing the heroes and villains through slo-mo swoops, gravity-defying flips, and bullet-dodging twists. Breathless and very loud, the movie may please fans who already cherish these characters. For everyone else, however, Daredevil will probably register as a highly stylized blur.
The world has changed since the ’30s, but the prison movie really hasn’t. Director John Luessenhop’s Lockdown features pumped-up violence and a primarily African-American and Latino cast, but otherwise this innocent-man-behind-bars melodrama is cut from the same striped cloth as the ones Warner Bros. used to make seven decades ago.
Avery Montgomery (Richard T. Jones) is an aspiring Albuquerque, N.M., swimmer who’s devoted to his girlfriend, Krista (Melissa De Sousa), and their young son. After winning one meet, Avery is approached by a scout, Charles (Bill Nunn), who promises to get him a college scholarship. To celebrate, the victorious swimmer goes out with his childhood friends Cashmere (Gabriel Casseus), a ruthless drug dealer, and Dre (De’Aundre Bonds), a mild-mannered dry-cleaning clerk. They’re nabbed for a robbery they didn’t commit, and one quick montage later, they’re on their way to the New Mexico State Penitentiary, site of the country’s bloodiest prison riot.
You needn’t have done hard time to guess what happens next. Avery endeavors to stay aloof and finds a noble mentor, Malachi (Clifton Powell), who could be paroled soon but can’t resist a self-sacrificing gesture. Cashmere falls in with the ruthless Clean Up (Lockdown executive producer Master P), who runs the rackets among the black inmates and is looking for women without criminal records—such as Krista, for example—who can smuggle drugs into the joint secreted in various orifices. And, oh, Dre gets raped. Meanwhile, on the outside, Krista and Charles work to assemble the evidence that will exonerate Avery—a process whose screen time takes about as long as a verse of Dylan’s “Hurricane.”
Luessenhop sets a lofty tone with an opening Ralph Ellison quotation and an arty shot of Avery swimming in the dark, but then immediately reaches in the opposite direction with the ho-bangin’, thug-bashin’ sequence that introduces Cashmere. (It’s the sort of stereotypical bad behavior not seen much in African-American movies since their focus switched from gangsta sagas to romantic comedies.) Rather than representing a conscious strategy, the contrast simply exemplifies the genre-hopping efficiency of Preston A. Whitmore II’s script—part moralizer, part expose, and part heart-warmer. The movie isn’t entirely persuasive in any of those modes, but that doesn’t mean that emphasizing one of them further would have made Lockdown anything other than longer. Like its B-movie antecedents, it’s a competent genre exercise, but hardly a film to study or savor. CP