One of my favourite, forgotten action movies of the 1980s is Phillip Noyce's spirited and inventive Blind Fury (1990). This version of the Zatoichi story beloved of Asian cinema shows, in a thrilling and comic way, how a blind man (Rutger Hauer) can acquit himself as a warrior – brilliantly, but not without difficulty and a little bluffing.
Daredevil (Ben Affleck), Matt by day, has no such dint in the facade of his superheroic dignity. Blinded by acid in his youth, Daredevil sits perched up among the stone gargoyles of New York's architecture, waiting to righteously swoop on wrongdoers.
Depicting Daredevil's peculiar powers would be a challenge to even the most seasoned director. Mark Steven Johnson, handling his second film after Simon Birch (1998), has problems making the premise work.
We have to be able to accept, even within this heightened, fantasy context, that a blind man has such extraordinary sensory powers that he can take reckless dives off buildings and dodge any bullet, knife or punch. Few films have been so consistently unbelievable on this level.
In its most risible touch, Daredevil finds that his sensory mapping is especially acute when rain is falling or water is pouring – which comes in handy during fight scenes as well as romantic clinches.
Little discrepancies creep in. One of the better set pieces of the film is a battle fought in and around giant organ pipes in a church. Matt is so attuned to sound that the gleefully vicious Bullseye (Colin Farrell) can easily torment and disorient him with loud blasts of noise. But isn't this the same guy who likes to listen to blaring rock music at home?
Asian cinema buffs will be annoyed at the sloppy way in which Elektra (Jennifer Garner) announces her expert training within Japanese modes of fighting, but then proceeds to figure in action-choreography that is purely from the Hong Kong martial arts school.
And a sense of irony appears to be absent from the hilarious scene in which our masked avenger decides to ignore the cries of endangered citizens for the sake of a little, redemptive loving.
Like Tim Burton's Batman movies, Daredevil is heavily under the spell of Frank Miller, who created a new era for the comic in the early '80s. Miller's speciality is adding a dark side to pre-established superheroes and their mythologies.
In the film, this dark side comes and goes in a rather confusing fashion. A flurry of details early on suggests that our Daredevil is a neurotic loner, unable to love, hooked on medication, given to vampirish rituals. One immortal image makes him seem like a closeted leather fetishist.
Most of this detail disappears once Matt meets Elektra. She, too, is meant to have a dark, or at least very tough, side. Seized by the desire for revenge, Johnson's script places her into an escalating conflict with Daredevil reminiscent of the Gothic romanticism of Buffy and Angel on television. But Elektra flip-flops so fast between fierce hatred and sentimental devotion that the character is hard to take.
In so many ways, Daredevil comes on like a poor imitation of Spider-Man (2002) – both superheroes co-created by resident Marvel Comics genius Stan Lee. The main problem here is the plot. After an extended exposition and a few action scenes, Daredevil simply stops. Arch villain Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) stands at glass windows looking powerful and menacing, but scarcely executes any evil plan. This movie is all dark-side and no centre.
© Adrian Martin March 2003