A film review by Craig J. Koban

DAREDEVIL: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT

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  (Original Cut)

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˝  (Director's Cut)

2003, PG-13, 103 mins. (Original Cut)

2004, R, 134 mins. (Director's Cut)

Matt Murdock/Daredevil: Ben Affleck / Elektra: Jennifer Garner / Kingpin/Fisk: Michael Clarke Duncan / Bullseye: Colin Farrell / Franklin Nelson: Jon Favreau / Urich: Joe Pantoliano / Jack Murdock: David Keith / Young Matt: Scott Terra

Written And Directed By Mark Steven Johnson

"Daredevil is essentially the Grateful Dead to Spider-Man's Beatles and Captain America's Elvis..." 

Writer/ Director Kevin Smith

 

There is an old film industry saying that films are not made, they are abandoned.  I would like to add my two cents with some cinematic philosophical rhetoric of my own:

 

When films are abandoned, they are oftentimes saved. 

 

Take, for instance, Mark Steven Johnson's 2003 film adaptation of the Marvel Comic's hero DAREDEVIL.  The film was criminally underrated and berated by most North American critics, but DAREDEVIL was an example of a concept that was taken to fairly respectable heights, but not quite taken far enough.  Johnson, a self-described DAREDEVIL-aholic, made a decent attempt at faithfully recreating the vigilante created in the 1964 comic of the same name, but his film owed more to the dark, film-noir DAREDEVIL comics of the 70’s and 80’s.  Yes, DAREDEVIL has often been regarded as a poor man’s SPIDER-MAN, but that does not inhibit the originality and uniqueness of the character.  

DAREDEVIL, as a film, is ominous and dark compared to Spider-man’s whimsicality; it’s kind of analogous to comparing the worlds of Batman and Superman.  I also like the fact that Daredevil, as a hero, is known for what he can't do, not for what he can.  For tone and mood, Johnson was genuinely successful at bringing the Man With No Fear to the big screen.  The 2003 film was well paced, action-packed, generally well written, and had performances that tried to dig deeper into their characters than most superhero films allow.  The film was good, but it seemed to be held back in a way, a sort of psuedo-big budget fan film that was made with heart, but felt a bit rushed with Its proceedings. 

In other words, it was like a great film trapped in a good body just waiting to be rescued.   

The hero that rescued the film, you ask? The DVD format, of course. 

DVD has been the best and worst thing to happen to that film fan base.  They are great in the sense that they provide for the very best in home cinema sound and picture quality (some recent releases, such as the fantastic DVDs of the STAR WARS TRILOGY, are arguably better looking and sounding on DVD than they were when they were initially released in theaters).   Furthermore, the level of supplemental features on DVD’s, the so-called “bells n’ whistles”, are every fanboy’s wet dream.  Some DVD’s cover every facet of the production of a film in so much detail that they are like little mini-film course in their own right. 

On the negative side, DVD has produced that abomination that is known as double-dipping, when the studio releases the theatrical version of the film on DVD and then, sometimes mere months later, releases a “Director’s Cut” of the film that has been re-edited with new footage.  Nothing makes me groan more, and my appetite to revisit DAREDEVIL on DVD in a new Director’s Cut was lukewarm at best.  Very few films have benefited from a newly edited version, with the possible exception of LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, a film I loved in its director’s cut, but failed to appreciate in its original cut.   

DAREDEVIL: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT can now be firmly placed in the same league as LEON as a film that has been genuinely improved upon by its additions from its theatrical release.  The changes, alterations, and additions to the film, supervised by Johnson himself, are not silly and inconsequential cosmetic fixes.  Over 30 minutes of additional footage, that was originally excised from the film, has been re-edited back into the film, making it well over two hours long.  The additions, which will be discussed later, never seem superfluous or redundant.  In fact, the additions improve the film in such a fundamental way that I was often plagued with the same question while watching this new version of the film: why the hell didn’t Johnson release this version in the first place? 

Well, the silly answer to that question lies in the bureaucracies of the MPAA and the suits that run 20th Century Fox.  In a supplemental feature on the DVD, Johnson explains (often to his frustration) that this new 134 minute R rated cut of DAREDEVIL was the film he always intended to release.  Unfortunately for him, the MPAA forced him to make a trip back to them three times for a more audience-friendly PG-13 rating, that was seemingly insisted upon by the executives at Fox.  Moreover, the Fox execs also insisted that Johnson’s adaptation of the Marvel hero be “no longer than 100 minutes”. 

With these ridiculous set of constraints, Johnson was forced to cut the film severely to get the PG-13 and the running time down to 103 minutes.  Watching the new version, the cuts are actually appear quiet severe in the original, especially when you consider how integral they are to further developing almost all of the major characters plus adding to the overall narrative with a subplot that actually pays off into something more meaningful.  The original cut of DAREDEVIL was a competent super hero film.  The Director’s Cut, in retrospect, ranks right up there with this year’s SPIDER-MAN 2 as one of the better of the recent comic films.   

DAREDEVIL, much like the original SUPERMAN and SPIDER-MAN, spends much of its first act assembling the origin of its main character.  Young Matt Murdock (played as a boy by Scott Terra) lives with his father, an over-the-hill and out of shape boxer named Jack “The Devil” Murdock (David Keith).  They live in what seems a mile removed from Spider-Man’s Manhattan.  They reside in the more seedy and scummy portions of Hell’s Kitchen.  One day young Matt is the victim of a gruesome chemical spill that blinds him permanently.  However, as he is soon to realize, his other senses become heightened to super human levels.  In essence, he develops a “radar sense” that allows him to see, so to speak (the visual look of Matt’s perception of “seeing” is actually one of the more unique visual touches of the film).   Of course, no hero can be void of a weakness, and Matt’s Kryptonite is basically loud noises that throw his senses off, which proves not to be very helpful, especially if you are fighting crime in a subway tunnel, but never mind. 

Jack Murdock is eventually murdered by the corrupt organized crime element of the city.  As a result, young Matt (much like Bruce Wayne after his parents are murdered) decides to seek revenge on his father’s death by fighting the elements of crime and seek justice “one way or another”.  As an adult, Matt (played in an under-rated performance by Ben Affleck) is a lawyer by day and DAREDEVIL by night.  His nocturnal activities come to the eyes of New York’s biggest crime Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), who feels he needs to rid this dangerous element once and for all.  He subsequently enlists the aid of a sadistic villain named Bullseye (played with antagonistic and despicable glee by Colin Farrell) to eliminate Daredevil.  Bullseye also has “special abilities” – he can turn anything into a weapon that can be thrown to kill his enemies, and I mean anything.  You’ll never look at a paper clip  or a peanut the same way again.

Yet, no hero film would be complete without a female for the hero to be interested in.  Enter the sexy Elektra Nachios (the luminous and stealthy Jennifer Garner) who has the ultimate meet-cute with Matt (you know, the kind where that have a martial arts battle of wills with one another in a city playground).  Elektra, it seems, has a very murky and ambiguous past, and when her father is killed, she thinks Daredevil is the culprit, and will do anything to bring about his destruction.  This, of course, puts a huge damper on her relationship with Matt.  Meanwhile, Bullseye (who actually killed Elektra’s father) is assigned to kill them both by the Kingpin. 

DAREDEVIL, original or director’s cut, has quite a bit going for it.  One of the more memorable aspects of the film is its consistent dark look.  I admired its dark and foreboding style that presents New York much like Tim Burton presented Gotham City to us.  Daredevil’s world is not a colorful one, but a seedy and desperate one occupied by crime and corruption.  DAREDEVIL feels and resonates more as “real” than the universe that Spider-Man occupies, and the elements that Daredevil fights against seem more grounded and less super human.  The art direction and cinematography reinforces this tone, and Daredevil himself, much of the time, is obscured in shadow.   

DAREDEVIL also does not disappoint on a performance or action level, the first ingredient which is often overlooked in these types of films.  Michael Clarke Duncan makes for an effective antagonist, who has an almost passive-aggressive manner to him, until, of course, he engages Daredevil in the inevitable showdown at the film’s conclusion.  Jennifer Garner as Elektra plays the role with the right level of restraint.  She’s not over-the-top as the female assassin, but plays the role mostly down-to-earth and simple, which more or less works for the film as a whole.  Farrell, on the other hand, is a complete hoot as Bullseye.  He is not one of those comic villains like Gene Hackman’s Lex Luther or Jack Nicholson’s Joker.  Refreshingly, Ferrell plays the character as a really scary and homicidal villain that actually feels dangerous.  Yes, he plays it broadly and many of the film’s laughs unexpectedly come from him, but Bullseye appears more scary and malevolent than, say, The Green Goblin in Spider-Man.  Ferrell, as the marksman from hell, steals the show. 

Then there is Affleck as the lead character himself.  Critics were not kind to him, but Affleck actually gives a very assured and confident performance.  I like the fact that he plays the role as the tortured and unstable man that he is supposed to be.  He physically looks the part, and his stature and appearance more than gives us the impression of him as a super hero.  But Affleck plays the role more sensitively than many have let on, and he encapsulates in his dual role a sense of troubled humanity that feels layered and textured.  Like Garner’s performance, Affleck is good at not overplaying the emotions of his character, and rather goes for simple strokes to paint large pictures.  He is effective and confident as the hero, but reserved, filled with doubt, and angst-ridden as the alter ego. 

The Director’s Cut enormously adds to the overall effectiveness of the film.  By adding over 30 minutes back into the film, Johnson ostensibly is able to further elaborate and embellish all of the major characters.  There is more time spent on young Matt and additional scenes with his father, as well as additional moments where young Matt learns to use his new gifts.  One character, a newspaper reporter that investigates Daredevil named Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano) is also given much more screen time and feels more like a realized persona and not just an abbreviated cameo.  His final moment in the film pays off much better with the inclusion of a new confrontational scene with him and Murdock. 

The new cut also benefits by embellishing the villains as well.  Kingpin is also given more screen time and is made more of a physically scary figure than he was in the theatrical cut, which makes his final showdown with Daredevil himself more consequential.  That final battle too has had additions made to it, and it now goes on longer and bloodier, more than the MPAA would have allowed the first time.  Bullseye too gets more attention, and an additional scene with his being checked by airline security is hilarious.  Elektra herself feels more rounded in the new version, and her relationship with Matt actually plays off much differently than in the original cut.  One scene in particular, with her and Matt on a rooftop in the rain, ends much differently in the newer cut, which subsequently makes future scenes between them play completely different.  Their entire relationship is given a new identity, in a way, and the dramatic dynamic between the two seems more tragic and urgent. 

Aside from the character building additions, the new cut also has an entirely new subplot featuring Matt and his law partner Franklin Nelson (the very funny Jon Favreau, who provides much needed comic relief) defend an accused murderer played by Coolio.  These new scenes, which introduce us to Coolio’s derelict drug addict, appear at first to be redundant, but pay off much more greatly later.  The scenes with Coolio, as Matt defends him, further define Matt’s character as a defender of those who often don’t get aid when they need it.  This entire subplot also pays off for the final act of the film, which makes certain revelations and payoffs actually ring truer with more clarity. 

Ironically, this subplot, despite its MIA status in the first cut, actually makes the narrative more coherent.  Not only that, but it provides more scenes defining the relationship between Matt and Franklin, the latter who is much more realized now.  Additional to this are more scenes which focus on Matt’s relationship with a local priest and more probing into the religious aspects that are paramount in Matt’s life (the Murdock of the comics was largely Catholic, and the new cut explores his Catholicism in much more detail). 

I appreciated the efforts of the makers of DAREDEVIL and liked the 2003 cut, but I was a little startled by how much more I liked this new Director’s cut compared to the original film.  This newer cut is a testament to the unappreciated power that editing can often have on the final product of a film.  The original cut was a lean and fast paced action film, but this new cut digs deeper into the story and characters of DAREDEVIL, so much that I feel that comic purists will get much more satisfaction out of it than their first time at the theatre.  Characters are given more time, motivations are explored in more detail, the plot feels less rushed and more developed, and the action and fight scenes are more rugged and feverous.   Perhaps more importantly, the newer cut takes its time more in developing the Murdock character and, much like in SPIDER-MAN 2, Johnson now has more time to focus on the man behind the mask.  Overall, DAREDEVIL: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT is a major accomplishment, and a superior super hero film that is better than its proceeding version.  Outside of moronic studio interference, why this version was not released to the general public back in 2003 is stupefying.  Relative to other super hero films, this new version stands on its own as one of the better ones, and it also helps to attack the principle that less is sometimes not more.

  H O M E