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Superhero film not so super.



Ben Affleck is Matt Murdock: arrogant attorney by day and vigilante by night. He is "The Man Without Fear," otherwise known as Daredevil, nemesis to a villain he's never seen: The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). Unlike other men of intrigue and shadows, Daredevil is blind; his sight robbed from him as a child by a toxic-waste spill. However, the accident that took his sight also heightened his other four senses to superhuman extremes.

Most notable among his powers is a kind of bat-like radar that allows him to "see" with sound waves. He is also able to leap small buildings in a single bound and can stalk hot women by following their scent. The hottest woman around is Elektra (Jennifer Garner, Emmy-winner for TV's Alias), and after a brief flirtation in a coffee shop, Murdock follows Elektra to a nearby playground, where the two engage in public, Matrix-y foreplay. Schoolchildren cheer as they jab, kick, leap, and spar as Murdock tries desperately to get Elektra's phone number. This scene, while fun, flaunts the film's complete disregard for Murdock's secret identity, which is compromised again and again without any consequences. Also, the film sets Murdock up as a cold fish from the beginning (a lame answering-machine break-up from a whiny, unseen girlfriend unravels all the exposition we need to conclude this) -- so what is it about Elektra that attracts Murdock? He can't see that she's played by Jennifer Garner. Does she smell that good?

Anyhoo, romance inevitably occurs and life seems grand until Elektra's father is killed by the Kingpin's mercenary henchman Bullseye (crazy, fun Colin Farrell), who can make any object a deadly weapon with his extraordinary aim (hence the moniker). Bullseye manages to frame Daredevil for the crime, prompting all-too-short confusion, whereupon Elektra becomes the hunter and Daredevil the hunted. In a matter of moments all of this is cleared up, and Bullseye manages to put both of these dark lovers seemingly out of commission, leaving Daredevil no recourse but to gargoyle-ishly haunt his local church (a handful of smug, unapologetic confessional scenes makes it apparent that Daredevil is Catholic -- how ironic!) and duke it out with Bullseye amid organ pipes and stained glass.

It's a shame that Farrell isn't a bigger star yet or he would probably be playing Daredevil. He's got more darkness and mystery in a mere dart of his eyes than Affleck can muster in a page of dialogue. Affleck, attractive and appealing in roles that let him be boyish and cute, flounders here trying to be grown-up and tortured. And he seems to think that blind people have no facial expressions -- or maybe that's just him trying to be aloof. I dunno. It doesn't work. And there's absolutely no chemistry between him and Garner, despite a very pretty scene in the rain where Murdock can "see" her by the sounds that raindrops make on her. Garner is the most interesting force in this movie and is sadly missing from most of it: an irrevocable flaw.

It's a shame that Daredevil, with a blind superhero, never explores or fleshes out any real drama concerning the blindness. Murdock's other senses are so heightened we never think of him as disabled. He is a superhero, yes, but it would have been more interesting to see more of his limitations. In fact, most of my film-logic questions stem from this: If he is blind, how does he make his costume -- a blood-red, leather devil get-up? A reporter remarks "cool color" of Murdock's cane, which doubles as Daredevil's hook/javelin. Murdock replies, "I wouldn't know." And while Murdock wouldn't know, Daredevil would, because it's part of the ensemble. Does he have a secret shopper? Or is he on the mailing list of some weird, fetish boutique? And if he can jump off buildings and land effortlessly on flagpoles, why is he too blind to comb his hair for court? If Daredevil is a good guy, why is he so cruel to his victims?

As in all superhero movies, logic and sense are stretched beyond our own non-super world, and in a movie as sloppy as Daredevil, it's best not to ask questions. -- Bo List

More on Daredevil

Here's the basic plot of Shanghai Knights: Two unlikely friends with an uncanny knack for landing in trouble travel to turn-of-the-century London to avenge a father's death and, with the help of a street urchin and a kindly Scotland Yard inspector, uncover a conspiracy by a nasty British royal to stake a claim to the English throne.

Jackie Chan returns as Chon Wang, rejoining his former wisecracking Shanghai Noon sidekick, Roy O'Bannon (played by Owen Wilson). They travel to England to investigate the circumstances of the death of Chon's father. His father was killed by a sinister aristocrat named Rathbone, who, we come to find out, is 10th in line to the throne and lusts for the chance to take it. Rathbone killed Chon's father to snag a jewel-encrusted imperial seal, and he subsequently plots to murder all nine royals above him in the British hierarchy, making one of his steel-eyed henchmen emperor of China along the way. Chon's sister, Lin (Fann Wong), is already hot on the trail of the stolen seal by the time he and Roy get to London, and together they make a desperate attempt to thwart Rathbone's plot.

Shanghai Knights proves that Chan can still showboat with the most acrobatic of quick-stepping stuntmen. His fight scenes, as ever, are choreographed brilliantly, but there's a lot more comedy this time to go with all the eye candy. During one of the action scenes, for instance, Chan makes hilarious use of an umbrella to dispatch the obligatory anonymous henchmen to the tune of "Singin' in the Rain."

The giddy glimpse we get of Chan in Shanghai Knights shows he's still got a long way to go before you can write him off as an action star. As in every movie he makes, there is such pure joy in simply watching the man move. His smile has a serene radiance, and here Chan demonstrates for the first time, and most effectively, his low-key acting ability beyond the swashbuckling stunts. That's not to diminish the importance of Wilson, whose hilarious drawl offsets all the derring-do quite nicely. The writers pepper the screenplay with enough droll one-liners and gags for Wilson that there's no chance of losing interest in between all the fisticuffs, and they even let him get in on the action at times. Wilson manages to take lines that should fall flat and turn them into quirky gems.

Bottom line: If you see only one slapstick, Victorian-era, martial-arts buddy movie this year, by all means, this is the one. -- Andy Meek

Widely characterized as "anti-American" during the height of the Red Scare, Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, about the early days of America's mucking about in French Indochina, occasioned plenty of controversy in its day. And though the long, tragic history of American involvement in Vietnam only confirmed Greene's prescience, one can understand why American studio Miramax has been trigger-shy with Australian director Phillip Noyce's recent adaptation of the novel.

Set for release in the fall of 2001, The Quiet American was pulled post-9/11 by Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, who feared U.S. audiences wouldn't be very receptive to a film that points out their own country's past complicity in terrorist activities. Miramax relented a year later when it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival and after critical raves for the film and Michael Caine's lead performance made the Oscar-hungry studio smell possible nominations. A late-2002, Oscar-qualifying release later, Caine is indeed up for Best Actor and the film is in wide release. The unintended delay couldn't have worked any better in the film's favor. Now, with the United States on the verge of unilaterally provoking a new war in an oft-colonized region and with America's standing overseas at perhaps an all-time low, the material seems more vital than ever.

As directed by Noyce (who also helmed the recent art-house hit Rabbit-Proof Fence) and shot on location by genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who lensed visually stunning Wong Kar-Wai films such as In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express), The Quiet American is a careful, subtle adaptation, refreshingly old-fashioned in its straight-ahead, subdued structure and quiet, deliberate intelligence. The film's visual style and relaxed pacing are matched by Caine's magnificently natural performance.

The film opens, like Sunset Boulevard, with a dead man floating face-down in the water, then flashes back and proceeds to show you how he got there. But unlike Sunset Boulevard, the dead man doesn't narrate the film. In this case, the narrator is Thomas Fowler (Caine), an aging correspondent for the London Times who is stationed in Saigon. It's 1952, at the height of the French Indochina War, a couple of years before the French will withdraw and the United States will take over the fight against Vietnam's Communist insurgents. (Though, as the film intimates, the U.S. was already financing much of the fighting.) Fowler isn't that interested in his job -- he's filed only three stories in the past year, a fact that threatens to have him yanked back to Britain -- but has grown very fond of Saigon, where he spends his days sipping tea in the outdoor cafes in front of grand colonial buildings like the Hotel Continental. "I can't say what made me fall in love with Vietnam," Fowler says early on in a voiceover, but it could be his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), on whom he dotes despite having a Catholic wife back home who refuses to grant him a divorce.

Complicating this happy set-up is the arrival of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser, making the most of his rugged good looks and natural innocence in a serious role, much as he did in Gods and Monsters), an American "aid worker" in the country for some sort of ill-defined humanitarian mission who takes a shine to Fowler and later to Phuong.

With his condescending niceness and lumbering carriage, baseball-cap-clad head and dog at his side ("You call him Duke?" Fowler asks with the vocal equivalent of casually raised eyebrows), Pyle embodies the well-meaning, naive American set loose in a world he wants to "save" but doesn't quite comprehend, and Fraser skillfully conveys the cheerful simplicity of Pyle's seeming innocence.

Pyle's is "a face with no history and no problems," Fowler muses, but the American's will to action exposes Fowler's own cynical detachment. "I have no point of view. I take no action. I don't get involved," Fowler says to Pyle when asked about his role in covering the war. But Pyle has other ideas. He carries with him a book that calls for the need for a "third force" between the Communists and the French. But when Fowler queries whether he thinks the Americans should assume that role, Pyle demurs: "No, we're not colonialists."

Soon Fowler and Pyle's friendly intellectual rivalry over the future of Vietnam and the nature of the present conflict manifests itself in a more personal way, as Pyle falls for Phuong and makes this known plainly to Fowler. Since Fowler cannot marry Phuong and is far older than she, he knows Pyle has more to offer. "I know I'm not essential to Phuong," Fowler admits in one of the film's most touching moments, "but if I were to lose her, for me that would be the beginning of death."

As you might imagine, this love triangle is richly allegorical, the three characters standing in for their respective countries, but, even more so, for the battle between young, swaggering America and old, battle-worn Europe over the hearts and minds (and control) of a pliant Third World. Yet this potentially cumbersome material is handled so delicately that the film works equally well on a personal level and on a political/historical level.

Unsurprisingly, Pyle's "humanitarian" mission turns out to be a much more complicated affair, as we learn just what this "third way" is and what his and America's role in creating it is. Noyce keeps the horrors of the war at a remove for most of the film, but the two exceptions -- the discovery of the remains of a massacred village and a car-bombing in Saigon -- are more than enough to reinforce the human cost of using this poor country as a political chessboard.

A late confrontation between Pyle and Fowler over Pyle's real role in the conflict unintentionally yet unavoidably forces the viewer to confront America's current role around the globe and consider the same crucial notion that Fowler must ultimately face: "Sooner or later, one has to take sides if one wants to remain human." -- Chris Herrington

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