Friday, October 3, 2008

Review: Daredevil Director's Cut (2004)

First of all, complete and total thanks for Fox for including nearly every extra feature from all three Daredevil DVDs from the two previous releases (as far as I can tell, the only things missing are the theatrical cut commentary and the theatrical cut trivia track). Fox started out in the BluRay business by being the stingiest studio around, release bare bones discs of movies that had already received special edition standard def releases. It seems they've cleaned up their act of late, so good on them.

In light of this release, I am republishing, with some mild tinkering, my quasi-review that I wrote back in December 2004, upon first viewing the director's cut. Short version - the theatrical cut was the worst film of 2003, but the extended version was actually a pretty good comic book film, more character driven than the latter Spider-Man films and with better fight choreography than Nolan's Batman pictures (less realistic, but easier to follow). And with word rumbling around that Marvel may
reboot the series (because that worked so well last time), allow me to step up and defend the underrated director's cut of a tragically compromised film.

Daredevil: Director's Cut


133 minutes

Rated R

Despite being made by alleged fans of the original comic book (which is on an all-time quality high, thanks to Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker), the theatrical cut of Daredevil was an insult to fans of the character, and insult to fans of comics, and (most importantly) an insult to fans of art in general. Lacking a coherent story (which had no real middle act), awash in bad, forced dialogue, full of choppy ill-defined characters, loaded with 8 cuts-a-second un-watchable action scenes, and filled with mediocre and pointless special effects, Daredevil easily won my vote for the worst and most disappointing film of 2003.

However, the writer/director (Mark Steven Johnson) was quick to point out upon release that the film was not the one he intended. Chopped to 96 minutes from its original 130-minute length, and edited to secure a PG-13, the theatrical cut was a compromise from a few producers and the heads of 20th Century Fox (as usual, Tom Rothman is the villain). Now that the director’s cut has been released on DVD, I can now state that as much as 80% of what went wrong about the original is completely the fault of studio executives and short sighted producers. Johnson, Afflick, Garner, and company actually made a pretty great film, but it is only now that we get to see it. Since I so bashed the original cut so viciously back in 2003, I should be first in line to tell of this cinematic redemption. Be forewarned, there will be modest spoilers, as much of this will be a comparison between the two versions.

The plot: The story, for those unfamiliar, concerns the daily struggles of Matt Murdock (Ben Afflick, pleasantly subdued and much stronger in the extended cut), blinded by a childhood accident but endowed with enhanced senses. Now a struggling Hell’s Kitchen attorney, he spends his nights dispensing vigilante ‘justice’ under the guise of the red-suited Daredevil. He is at a crossroads in his life, he is neither terribly successful as an attorney, nor as a force for good. Wilton Fisk – AKA- The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan, in a truly creative bit of colorblind casting) is attempting to strengthen his hold in the organized crime of New York City, at the expense of his business partner, whose daughter (Jennifer Garner who is still much better on Alias) may just be the solution to Matt’s current life crisis. In the theatrical version, badly written, shoehorned romance and poor action ensued. In this version, toned down and more logical romance, character driven crime drama, and well-composed action ensues.

To wit:

The action scenes - reedited to their original, occasionally bloody R-rated form, are now good, quality, well-lit, non-choppy fight scenes. They flow wonderfully, have long, wide, and fluid shots, and have a complete sense of geography. The choppiness is a result of the MPAA demanded that there be less total violence in every major set piece, including important bits that held the fight scenes together. The opening bar fight is now a genuinely terrific action set piece. And most of the other fight scenes (with the exception of the still silly playground duel) now flow with a genuine sense of skill.

The special effects - some of the CGI is still lousy, and the makers admit this on the commentary. But now we know why. As is well known, the movie started as a $50 million street-level movie. After Spider-Man succeeded, Fox demanded that they take extra money and spend that money on more CGI 'flying' effects. Of course, giving someone extra money for new or fixed effects mere months before release will give you rushed, lousy effects, as Richard Lester and the Superman 2 crew can attest to.

The dialogue - Well, several lines are still bad, but due to the extended time, the dialogue flows and lines that seemed to be blunt and expository now simply lead into better, detailed conversations that establish moral quandaries and relationships between the characters.

The story - Well, at last, we now have a middle act, and 90% of the plot holes in the original have been filled. A new subplot, involving a murder trial, shows that Murdock IS a good lawyer, adds several terrific Matt Murdock character moments (including a fun interrogation of a dirty cop), and explains in detail the trail that leads the police to realize that Fisk is The Kingpin (the film’s finale made absolutely no sense in theatres).

The romantic subplot - What was once the major driving force is now merely a subplot, and the film works better for it. The director has deleted the sex scene (which was added at the behest of executives), which changes the entire dynamic of their relationship and his feelings towards her. Because Murdock now leaves her in the rain, Electra is NOT the great love of his life, but rather another missed opportunity and messed up life choice.

The little details - Well, we now know that the trial scene in the beginning IS a civil suit, which explains why Murdock is there in the first place (the original was shockingly inept in its knowledge of even Hollywood-ized law). We see more of Kingpin being 'the Kingpin'. And there is much more of Foggy (Jon Favreau) and Ben Urich (Joe Paltolianio). In fact, every character, with the exception of Electra (who now has one less scene) and Bullseye (he has an extra scene, but he was pretty much complete to begin with), is richer, fuller, and integral to the plot. The film is a full 2 hours, 7 minutes, and thus has lots of room to breathe between action scenes, which is exactly how an action film should be.

Granted, this does not put Daredevil in the realm of Batman Returns or Superman: The Movie, but it has turned what was previously my vote for worst film of 2003 into a solid B+ character-driven superhero drama. Heck, it makes more sense and has better, more rounded characters than the highly overrated Spider-Man 2 (where Aunt Mae is the only character whose actions really feel character-driven rather than plot-driven). I wrote this review, as unconventional of a format as it is, in a small way, as atonement. I spent many a comic monologue trashing the movie to my friends and family, so I should fess up at equal length when they in fact fix the problems that might not have been their fault to begin with.

THIS is the movie we should have seen back in Feb 03. It would have still opened to $40 million, but would not have plummeted 52% and become the lowest grossing movie ($101 million) ever to open to $40 million or more. It would have grossed $150 million and been a fan favorite, because it is good! The fact that executives at Fox preferred a bad, short movie to a good, long one defies logic, but of course, that's nothing new. Now I really want to see the fabled 135-minute cut of 1998’s The Avengers. If anyone has a bootleg (which is legal since it’s not for sale), do let me know. Either way, it is good to know that this particular Devil has finally been given his due.

Theatrical Cut: D
Director’s Cut: B+

Scott Mendelson

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