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DAREDEVIL

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From the bottom of his vengeance-fueled psyche to the tips of his cowl's perky little horns, the comic-book hero Daredevil more than a little resembles Batman, a crusader who beat him both to the funny papers and the big screen. They share not only Gotham-sized chips on their shoulders, but also an affinity for the nocturnal, right down to naming themselves after things that go screech in the night.

But Daredevil, who first appeared in Marvel Comics nearly 40 years ago, is a neat variation on a theme. For one, his alter ego Matt Murdock is a populist lawyer, which puts him out in the real world more than cloistered moneybags Bruce Wayne. And Daredevil is blind -- a sightless acrobat guided by his wildly heightened remaining senses, armed with only a gadgety billy club, and going by his own personal subtitle: "the man without fear."

Mark Steven Johnson's film Daredevil capitalizes expensively on what makes Daredevil unique. But while it's fitfully entertaining, this pre-sold blockbuster never really delivers on its promise to be something more than a popcorn-disposal chute.

Still, give Johnson points for trying. Murdock/Daredevil (Ben Affleck) is a blue-collar masked hero, a Hell's Kitchen native whose pop was a washed-up boxer and hired mob muscle. By day a do-good defense attorney, Murdock still shacks in the Kitchen; battered after a night of thumping wrongdoers, he loses teeth and munches Percosets like peanuts. Bedeviled by his hypersensitivity to sound, he sleeps in a sensory deprivation tank; tormented by his vigilante impulses, he's a devout Catholic who takes to a confessional where the priest who knows his secret tells him, "You want permission, not absolution."

Using shadowy, animated silhouettes, Johnson and his visual-effects crew render Daredevil's world of sound more eloquently than does Johnson's script ("My sense of sound gives off a kind of radar sense" -- I think he means "sonar," but I guess that's why it's called science fiction). Some of the iconography is fun -- a wounded 'devil seeks sanctuary in a cathedral -- and some is overworked. Some of the fights and chases are good, but many are cut too fast to tell what's happening (a rampant affliction of modern Hollywood action scenes). Some of the stunts are exciting, but too many are digital animations, something that always leaves me feeling a little cheated -- especially because Daredevil's lack of superhuman strength makes you wonder how he manages those unassisted 60-foot-long jumps anyway.

Daredevil's foe is the crime kingpin called "Kingpin" (Michael Clarke Duncan); an accidental nemesis (and Murdock's love interest) is heiress and martial-arts expert Elektra (Jennifer Garner). In an oddly genre-defying maneuver, the movie's hero never even meets its head villain until their climactic battle. Maybe that's one reason that, for all its references to moral conflicts, Daredevil never really convinces you of its sense of purpose.

But it's also partly due to Affleck's bland performance. In last summer's rather decent Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire was interesting even when doing nothing; Affleck is least believable when he's acting, which he is most of the time. In the couple of instances in Daredevil when he's playing comic or romantic moments, Affleck is at ease; the rest of the time, he's a hunka Wonder Bread.

Garner, with her great smile, is a bit better as Elektra. Duncan -- about whom everything is absolutely huge except for his funny, watery little tortoise eyes -- gives a menacingly jolly show as Kingpin. But the actor having the most fun is Colin Farrell as the hit man Bullseye, an Irish assassin who can make deadly throwing weapons out of anything from paper clips on up. Arching his eyebrows, scowling and pouting, Farrell gives the movie's only really devilish performance. * * 1/2

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