Was I the only one who, when informed of Ben Affleck's engagement to Jennifer Lopez, thought, "Good career move" ' not for her but for him? I've never been very impressed with Affleck (although he showed surprising depth in Changing Lanes). And it was getting to the point where his off-screen exploits ' checking into rehab, being named People's "Sexiest Man Alive" -' were overshadowing his on-screen ones. But Daredevil, this month's comic-book GÃtterdÃmmerung, may change all that. Affleck's performances have always had a devil-may-care aspect, as if he wasn't all that concerned how they came out. Here, he adds a devil-may-dare element, and the result is a performance that's both light on its feet and surprisingly weighty. Daredevil, who's blind but who more than makes up for it with his four other senses, has been part of the Marvel Comics family for almost 40 years, but he's never been a leading member of that family, more like Spider-Man's cousin, once removed. Until now. If there's any justice in this world ' and Daredevil is all about justice ' Spider-Man's about to learn a lesson in how to make the leap to the big screen.
Yeah, I know, the Spider-Man franchise has already become a license to print money, but the movie itself, although it started beautifully, quickly devolved into a very loud, very annoying videogame. Whereas Daredevil, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, whose previous claim to fame was the scripts for the Grumpy Old Men movies, starts strong and builds from there. Only the climactic scenes, where our hero has to polish off two major villains in a very short time, seem forced. The rest of the movie unfolds with the ease and sweep of...well, of a good comic book. Visually and thematically, Johnson has drawn on the early-'80s graphic work of Frank Miller, who also rescued Batman from the biff-boom-pow campiness of '60s television. And Daredevil veritably wallows in the grit and grime of Hell's Kitchen, the Manhattan neighborhood where the young Matt Murdock (played by Scott Terra) comes of age. "You don't hit nuttin' but books," Matt's father, a down-on-his-luck boxer, tells his son. But a spray of toxic something or other and a mob hit leave the youngster both sightless and fatherless. VoilÃ: Daredevil is born.
He's a curious superhero ' no real superpowers, just a heightened sense of smell and hearing, plus a lot of acrobatic training. In other words, he's Spider-Man without the webs, although not your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Temperamentally, he's closer to Batman, whose double identity straddles the line between friend and fiend. "Lawyer by day, judge and jury by night" is how a priest at the gothic cathedral where Daredevil goes to lick his wounds describes him. And those wounds are both physical and spiritual: Daredevil's one of Marvel's tortured souls, a vigilante who isn't entirely comfortable going outside the law. Luckily, there's Elektra to lighten his load. As portrayed by Jennifer Garner, the spy babe from "Alias," Elektra is Catwoman to Daredevil's Batman, the living embodiment of a swift kick to the groin. Their first meeting, in street clothes on a school playground, has to be one of the sweetest and sourest pas de deux in the history of kung-fu fighting, brilliantly choreographed by Cheung Yan Yuen, who'll be packing the punches in the upcoming Matrix sequels.
Affleck and Garner get such a nice thing going that they leave the villains in the dust, which has to be a first for these comic-book epics. As Kingpin, New York City's behind-the-scenes crime lord, Michael Clarke Duncan has presence to burn, but he's not as flamboyantly evil as, say, Jack Nicholson's Joker. Colin Farrell fares better. He's Bullseye, Kingpin's hired assassin, and although he looks like Andre Agassi after an early-round loss at Wimbledon, he's capable of killing a man with a few paperclips from 30 feet away, which can't help but leave an impression. The actual fight sequences are a little choppy, but the rest of the movie suggests a heightened sense of sight and sound on the director's part. And a heightened sense of drama. Daredevil's a comic book, not a cartoon. And it brings out Affleck's best feature, his boyishness, while turning him into a man. Not everybody can pull off a costume that looks like the leather jumpsuit Elvis donned for his 1968 comeback special, but Affleck wears it well. In what could have been the silliest role of his life, he gives his most mature performance.