DAREDEVIL

Director:  Mark Steven Johnson

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan

NB: This review includes minor spoilers.

Although clearly formed from the same mould as Tim Burton's Batman, Mark Steven Johnson's adaptation of Marvel Comics' Daredevil is arguably the most successful attempt so far at capturing the spirit and form of a comic strip. The film is light on plot, but packs in the action, and features stunt work that, frankly, embarrasses it's recent stable-mate, Sam Raimi's 2002 adaptation of Spider-Man.

Daredevil, the story of Matt Murdock, a man who's become a lawyer by day, and super hero vigilante by night, after a childhood accident left him blinded, is a pulpy action movie populated by broadly-drawn characters motivated by their most primal instincts. Most of the film takes place in the grungy world inhabited by our hero: a man who doesn't need light to be able to see, thanks to his finely-developed senses. The film pits Daredevil against the evil crime lord Kingpin (The Green Mile's Michael Clarke Duncan) and his hired hit-man Bullseye (Phone Booth's Colin Farrell). It also matches him against the feisty assassin Elektra (Alias star Jennifer Garner), who is, conveniently, unaware that she's dating Daredevil's daytime alter ego.

The UK Region 2 DVD features the uncut version of the film, despite carrying the same rating - 15 - as the theatrical release, which was censored by the BBFC. Changes made to the UK theatrical release - to remove a scene where one of Elektra's sai's penetrates someone's palm, and to tone down a scene in the finale where the villain's legs are broken (the crack was buried under a handy rumble of thunder) - have been restored for the DVD.  

The film seems more or less evenly divided between scenes that take place in bright daylight, which translate very nicely to DVD, and those that take place in near-darkness, which are more problematic. Fox's DVD transfer makes a good job of taming both, but the film's Super 35 cinematography, (which was extensively adjusted digitally in post-production), isn't its strongest asset, and to get the best out of the disc you'll need to watch the film in complete darkness. 

The disc presents the film in anamorphic widescreen format, with a ratio of about 2.35:1. Much of the film uses a deliberately subdued, urban palette. This drab backdrop enables the filmmakers to make startling use of splashes of vivid colour that pepper the film, (the use of red throughout the film is carefully controlled, for example). Viewers who haven't seen the film may be surprised that there aren't any sequences in the film where they'll get as good a look at Murdock's Daredevil costume (designed by multi-Oscar and BAFTA-award winner James Acheson, who also worked on Spider-Man) as they do on the various posters, or on the box of the DVD. In fact, as Mark Steven Johnson explains on the disc's commentary track, studio executives were so paranoid that Daredevil would look stupid that in many sequences you'd be hard pressed to tell that the costume is red at all: it was deliberately shot to appear almost black (picking up the lead set by The X-Men movie). Fox's disc is unlikely to win any prizes for its transfer, which is as good as you'd expect from a big-budget blockbuster, but not especially outstanding. Black levels are solid and contrast is excellent. The picture can be rather soft, though, and there's rarely much "bite" to the image. Average bitrate is a healthy 7.35Mb/sec.

The film's sound mix, on the other hand, is simply stunning, The disc offers a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 (at 448kbps) and DTS (at 768kbps) tracks. Both are thrilling, but the DTS has the edge, with more vivid presence. The mix is dynamic and elaborate, with plenty of action pushed into the rear channels. The mix also gives flight to the film's songs (some of which actually seem to belong in the film, and not simply wedged in by marketing considerations) and to Graeme Revell's ballsy orchestral score. Fox has commendably provided a narrated (2.0) audio track on the feature for the visually impaired. The film and most (if not all) of the bonus materials offer English subtitles.

Disc one offers an option to watch the film in Enhanced Mode, which offers eight short behind the scenes sequences, slotted into the film where appropriate. These range from less than a minute long, to a Grab Bag of bits and pieces running for almost eight minutes (including material about the film's deleted "Frogger"-like sequence, and costume and model tests). Most of these sequences offers a choice of three angles. The first angle is the animatic version of the scene, the second is the raw effects footage, and the third is both side by side. It's easiest to orientate yourself by watch the third angle first, and then examine the two components in full-screen. Each clip has commentary by Visual Effects Producer John Kilkenny. All this material is offered in anamorphic widescreen format. The US disc presents these cutaways with a White Rabbit-style icon option, but, as with the Region 2 X-Men 1.5 disc, the UK version does some of the work for you once the Enhanced Mode option has been selected. Six of one... Watching each segment twice or three times is a bit of a pain. More than once I managed to crash out of the disc by trying to rewind back to the entry point, meaning I had to sit through the disc's tedious opening sequence (copyright warning, trailers to be skipped and animated menus) again. It would have been far more sensible to edit each of these segments into a single sequence, (which would also have offered the benefit of a less hurried commentary). Sometimes more is less.

The film is also accompanied by a text commentary, which notes trivia like cameo appearances, and which characters are named after Daredevil comic book writers and artists. There's a fair bit of crossover between this and the audio commentary, so it's best to have both on together. The audio commentary, by Mark Steven Johnson and producer Gary Foster is full of interesting information, and is often remarkably candid. There are nice stories about Colin Farrell, who seems like a bit of a handful, a few well-deserved digs at Spider-Man, and, equally, plenty of self-deprecation about a few Daredevil FX shots that don't work. You'll also learn about a sequence that was radically re-structured (transforming a man who beats his son into a street mugger), discover which sequence of the film was "inspired by" a Visa commercial, and find out which key scene was added long after principal photography was completed (guess!)

The movie disc opens with trailers for Solaris, Phone Booth, X-Men 2, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Master and Commander and Bulletproof Monk. These can be fast-forwarded through, or skipped entirely using the Menu option.

The second disc is also a DVD-9 (dual-layer) disc. Fox is, without doubt, the most adventurous studio when it comes to DVD. They've issued a string of special edition discs which make the best offerings from their rivals look positively miserly. Daredevil easily rivals some of the studio's past DVD triumphs, like their outstanding two-disc editions of Fight Club and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. It's also worth noting that Fox is also the only company that regularly makes extensive use of the format's capabilities (branching, multi-angles, etc) for supplementary material. 

The second disc is divided into two parts, devoted to The Film and The Comic Book.

The Film:

At the heart of the second disc is Beyond Hell's Kitchen: Making Daredevil, a reasonably comprehensive look at the film's production, running just under an hour. It skims over the film's initial development, which began at Fox in 1997 (when the director of the first two Harry Potter movies, Chris Columbus, was earmarked to direct), moved to Disney in 1998, as Marvel teetered on the edge of  bankruptcy, and then to Sony (Columbia) in 1999, before finally returning to Fox as a production made by New Regency. The documentary features contributions from most of the film's key contributors, including plenty of candid footage of the lead actors ("Oh - I got you right in the nuts!") Most aspects of the production are covered, including a look at the stunt work, and the often frustrating process of creating the film's music. The ratio of behind the scenes material to talking heads is high, and that makes it significantly more interesting than many similar documentaries. 

The documentary, like the film itself, is also offered with enhanced viewing mode, which adds half a dozen extra segments, which add about twenty minutes or so to the documentary's running time. The six cutaways are effectively mini-featurettes. Unlike the ones in the film, these can be accessed separately. These featurettes each focus on one specific aspect of the film: on Costume Design (where you'll see an array of rejected test costumes, including ones with a bandana-style mask, and a boxer's gown-style hood); L.A. for N.Y. (a look at how the filmmakers made Los Angeles (where most of the film was shot) look like New York (where it's set)); Combat Choreography (concept footage of the playground and church fights); Smoke and Fire (showing examples of the film's practical effects, including Bullseye's darts gag, which was eventually re-done with CGI); Film Work (an explanation of how the film is handled during production, with Matthew Schmidt, the assistant editor, who notes that Daredevil generated about half a million feet of film - about half what might be expected for a movie of this type); and Seeing With Sound (focusing on the design and development of Matt Murdock's sonar-like "Shadow World" visualisations). 

When you watch the extended Beyond Hell's Kitchen documentary, note that this features behind the scenes footage of the original version of a line spoken by Bullseye in Wilson Fisk's office. The line was changed in the film to "I want a bloody costume" at the insistence of the MPAA). The documentary includes the original line, and not just once, but twice!  Take that, MPAA! It's worth noting that the commentary and the documentary both contain numerous examples of strong language. There's more off-colour shenanigans in the Blooper Reel, which is hidden as an Easter Egg on the Beyond Hell's Kitchen: Making Daredevil menu. This six-minute selection includes some choice material, including Jon Favreau ad-libbing, Jennifer Garner getting the giggles, and some nice shots of Affleck and Garner doing back-flips on the see-saws.

The second disc also includes the HBO First Look special (25m), presented by Jennifer Garner (it's on-screen title is Daredevil: From The Comic To The Big Screen). This is a relatively elaborate promotional documentary: no less superficial then usual, but offering more sound-bites from the cast and key crew members, and more behind-the-scenes footage. There's a bit of duplication between this and the Beyond Hell's Kitchen documentary, but both are worth watching. This documentary is presented in 4:3 ratio, and eagle-eyed viewers might notice that some of the clips used are presented differently to the versions in the film.

Other bonus materials on the second disc include: Jennifer Garner's Screen Test (3m, which includes dialogue dropped from the playground fight scene, about her bodyguards); Multi-Angles Dailies (a chance to examine the raw footage of a brief part of the Daredevil / Kingpin fight (one take, three angles) and the Bullseye / Elektra fight (three separate takes, up to four angles); Featured Villain Kingpin (a very short interview with Michael Clarke Duncan); Moving Through Space: A Day With Tom Sullivan (8m, a featurette exploring the life of the film's blind consultant, which includes a tale about how Sullivan once won a wrestling match by popping out one of his artificial eyes!) 

The disc also contains three theatrical trailers (including the teaser trailer, which contains a shot of murder suspect Daunte Jackson, (played by Coolio, whose scenes were dropped from the finished film), and three music videos in 2.0 stereo: Fuel's Won't Back Down, The Calling's For You and Evenescence's Bring Me to Life (the track used during Elektra's training montage). Comprehensive image galleries offer the film's terrific comic-strip-style storyboards, production art and a rather skimpy selection of photographs (no great loss: the on-set photographs from the film were mediocre). These aren't terribly well presented (the framing is ugly and too much space is wasted by the border). One section, labeled Production Stills actually contains more artwork. The galleries contain about five hundred images.

A promotional advert for the soundtrack CD, a trailer for 28 Days Later and some insignificant DVD-ROM materials seem to be the only things that are on the US disc, but aren't on the UK version. 

Although there's a lot of talk on the commentary track about material that was shot and discarded, most of it refers to alternate versions of scenes which did make it into the film. It doesn't sound like any major plot strands were abandoned, and it doesn't sound like there'd be much to add back in to the film if there were ever to be a Director's Cut version somewhere down the line (perhaps to coincide with the theatrical release of the inevitable sequel, as Fox did with X-Men 1.5). Nevertheless, the absence of deleted scenes is disappointing.

The Comic Book:

I've never been a vociferous comic book reader, and don't remember being exposed to the Daredevil character before, other than fleetingly admiring some of the cover art. I knew that the film had made a few rather drastic changes to the comic book characters, (Kingpin, who is depicted as being a sumo-wrestler sized white guy in the comics, is now a 6-foot-7-inch tall black dude, for example), but other than that I had no handle on the character's history. The hour-long documentary The Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil is a terrific potted history of the character,which will bring the uninitiated up to speed. The story of the Daredevil comic book is told by the artists and writers who have worked on the strip since it made its debut in 1964. Men Without Fear includes interviews with creator Stan "The Man" Lee, veterans like John Romita and Gene Colan, and relative newcomers like Frank Miller (who created Elektra, re-invented Kingpin, and is generally credited with completely revitalising the character in the early 80s). Each explains how they're built on the foundations laid down by their predecessors, and how their own contribution has shaped the character's destiny. It's perhaps unlikely that Daredevil's stalwart fans will learn very much, but they will probably be thrilled to hear these guys speak. 

As with most film adaptations from long-running comic strips, the Daredevil movie steals extensively from the best material generated over the years and attempts to condense it into a cohesive single story. The Men Without Fear documentary doesn't really explain this process, but viewers will be able to see how the main characters in the movie were developed, and even where some of the specific plot ideas originated. 

Disc two's other two bonus features are a disappointment after viewing the rest of the material, so I'd recommend saving something else until last (the Blooper Reel, perhaps?). Shadow World Tour (6m) compares panels from the comic strip with to the same concepts as they're portrayed in the film. It's clumsily constructed, though, and could have been better presented it in the same way that storyboards usually are: side by side with the equivalent shots in the movie. 

Modelling Sheets are bullet-point profiles of the five main characters (including Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, Matt Murdock's law partner, who is played in the film by Jon Favreau). These were taken from the Marvel Encyclopedia .

Fox has, once again, delivered almost everything any reasonable person could want from a DVD, and more than a few goodies than we have a right to expect (the DTS track, for example). 

 

RELATED REVIEWS:

Daredevil: Director's Cut

Elektra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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