The Chilean-born film director Raúl Ruiz was once described (by Timothy Corrigan in his seminal postmodern book A Cinema Without Walls) as a "fatherless ghost" – someone whose imagination seemed free of all social traditions and merely human constraints. Elektra (Jennifer Garner) has a similarly ethereal quality, this time for quite literal reasons.
Those who fear her supernatural power call her a "motherless daughter" – since she witnessed the murder of her mother at the hands of a dark demon – and she herself vividly recounts the ghostly part, when she once died and was brought back to life by her blind martial arts master, Stick (Terence Stamp).
At the beginning of this film, Elektra is a free agent, a hired killer seemingly devoid of any moral sense, or any attachment to other people. But, since she springs from the complex fictional universe of Marvel Comics, she must deal not only with the spectres of her past, but also a feisty teenager who serves as her youthful double: Abby (Kristen Prout).
Many superhero films grapple with the problem of balancing a great deal of exposition – how this character came to be, the inventory of his or her special skills – with the need to get a new story happening. As a result, the plot here is rather slender, essentially covering Elektra's increasingly frenetic attempt to protect Abby and her father, Mark (Goran Visnjic), from a band of colourfully spooky ninja assassins known as The Hand, led by Kirigi (Will Yun Lee). Especially memorable, from this bunch, is the Goth lesbian, Typhoid (Natassia Malthe), whose kiss is lethal.
Garner as Elektra first appeared (in a costume that greatly displeased fans of the comic book) in Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil (2003). Rob Bowman, an X-Files alumnus, takes the directorial reins here and crafts a tighter, more stylistically coherent film, even with its numerous flashbacks and inevitable allusions to Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003/4).
Mercifully, it quickly abandons the chic-noir look of the prologue and relocates Elektra to a natural setting, where the action scenes have a touch of Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002). The fantastical mesh of settings is clinched by a simple but ingenious device: because of gifts like telepathy and premonition, not to mention the ability of Tattoo (Chris Ackerman) to incarnate snooping, winged creatures from the markings on his body, no one needs to use anything resembling modern, telecommunications technology. Pleasantly old-fashioned, magical appearances and disappearances are the coin of this realm.
Elektra is one serious superhero, and Garner (star of the television series Alias) is perfectly cast in the part. (For a master-stroke of counter-casting – and a sign of the actor's immense talent and range – see Garner in 13 Going on 30 .) Stick refers repeatedly to Elektra's intimate affinity for "pain and violence", and no one lets her forget that her mythological name evokes Greek Tragedy.
In a curious story element, Abby points out that Elektra exhibits symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (a scene where she methodically lays out the items of her domestic space is priceless) – making her an unlikely sister to both Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004) and Joey Ramone in End of the Century (2004).
Elektra is so sombre, in fact, that the fleeting occasions (I counted two) when she laughs or smiles almost split the film apart.
© Adrian Martin January 2005