Director: Rob Bowman
Kung fu was all the rage in the 1970s. Bruce Lee was a huge star, David Carradine's television show Kung Fu was making waves, and action figures soon became marketed with "kung fu grip" in order to capitalize on the newfound popularity of kung fu. Kung fu soon found its way into comic books, with heroes such as Iron Fist and the Master of Kung Fu debuting. As the '70s progressed into the '80s and '90s, kung fu diminished in recognition as bad girls became more and more popular. Pulp comic sexpot Vampirella's cult following grew, and along with frequent doses of sex appeal from Batman villains Catwoman and Poison Ivy. One of the last examples of a kung fu comic star and one of the earliest members of the bad girl trend is Marvel's one and only Elektra. Making her first appearance in "Daredevil #168" (January 1981), cartoonist Frank Miller created her to be a hired assassin out to kill Daredevil, but with a twist. As it turns out, Elektra was at one time the college sweetheart of Daredevil's secret identity, Matt Murdock. But a lot of emotional baggage and martial arts training later, Elektra had become one of the world's most dangerous and deadly assassins. Since her first appearance, she's gone on to star in several miniseries and graphic novels, and even had her own title on two separate occasions. Elektra has become such an important part of the Daredevil mythos that when the "Man Without Fear" appeared in his first movie in 2003, the sai-wielding Greek assassin was right there by his side. Although the Daredevil movie's success was rather modest and the reactions among critics and fans were decidedly split, Twentieth Century Fox felt that Elektra was such an intriguing character that they decided to give her a spin-off movie of her own.
Our story begins with a brief monologue, introducing us to the universe we will become a part of during the film. Since the beginning of time, good and evil have waged a war hidden in shadow. In modern times, the force of evil has become represented by "The Hand," a criminal organization that secretly engages in the dark arts. The good follow a form of martial arts called kimagure, the masters of which are granted a form of clairvoyance and, in some rare cases, the ability to raise the dead. Somewhere in the history of this war is something called "The Treasure," a story of a motherless daughter that is destined to become a powerful woman warrior and tip the scales between good and evil, the final weapon in an ancient war.
It is from here that we segue into our introduction to Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), who was shown very much dead at the end of Daredevil. So if this isn't a prequel, what is she doing alive? In the time since we last saw her, blind kimagure master Stick (Terence Stamp) used his powers to resurrect Elektra for the purpose of continuing the martial arts training that was briefly alluded to in Daredevil. Emotionally scarred by watching the death of her mother and fueled by an intense inner rage, Elektra soon finds herself expelled from Stick's dojo, and she fine-tunes her abilities into a career as an accomplished hired assassin. Using her death to her advantage, she has become an urban legend in the underworld, with opinions ranging from her being a ghost to simply not existing. And in order to maintain appearances, she's developed an obsessive compulsive disorder, incessantly cleaning her house in order to remove all DNA evidence of her existence. It's kinda like the Men In Black, but without a government grant. Anyway, after accomplishing one job, her manager McCabe (Colin Cunningham) arrives to inform her of her next assignment, where she's to set up shop in a secluded cottage on an island off the coast of Washington and await further instructions. This doesn't sit too well with Elektra, who doesn't like playing the waiting game, but she goes anyway.
At the cottage, we learn a few things. One of them is that Elektra's obsessive-compulsive disorder stretches far beyond scrubbing floors. She also counts her footsteps and has a very specific way that she organizes things. It's not as extreme as it could be, but it's still creepy. I have to agree with Roger Ebert's review; I want to see a superhero with a full-blown case of extreme OCD, to the point that they count their steps when they walk. Wouldn't that be different? Okay, back to the story. While waiting for information on her targets, Elektra is befriended by her neighbors, Mark Miller (Goran Visnjic) and his rebellious 13-year-old daughter Abby (Kristen Prout). The cold, distant Elektra slowly begins to take a liking to her neighbors, but the new friendship takes an unexpected turn when she learns that her targets are none other than Mark and Abby. She makes an attempt, but her conscience finally gets to her and she can't bring herself to kill them.
Elektra calls McCabe and tells him she can't carry out the contract, which ends up unloading a whole heap of trouble. Y'see, it turns out that the unnamed party that hired Elektra to kill the Millers is the Hand, led by Master Roshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The Hand's been chasing the Millers because they've determined that Abby is the aforementioned Treasure, and after some prodding from his son Kirigi (Will Yun Lee), Roshi has decided that if Abby won't join the Hand, she won't get the opportunity to oppose them either. Elektra wipes out an entire team of ninjas in defense of the Millers, and the trio soon find themselves on the run from the Hand and Kirigi's three goons: Stone (Bob Sapp), who is incredibly strong and has rock-hard skin; Tattoo (Chris Ackerson), whose intricate animal tattoos can peel right off his torso and attack; and Typhoid Mary (Natassia Malthe), who can cause any living thing to wither and die. Their evasion of the Hand soon leads them to Stick's dojo, where Elektra learns that if she wishes to start a new life, she must defeat the Hand and come face-to-face with the ghosts of her past.
Elektra is an oddity. Though a spinoff of Daredevil, it has only the loosest of connections to that film. Elektra is shown getting killed at the end of Daredevil (though the scene is cleverly structured to avoid having to pay royalties to Colin Farrell or Ben Affleck), and that's it. If anything can be said about the movie, it's that it definitely tries to forge its own identity. The promotional materials didn't even mention it was related to Daredevil until shortly before the movie's release, instead choosing to ride the coattails of the X-Men movies instead. However, Daredevil ties or not, Elektra is very much an example of style over substance. This is most evident in the lead character herself, who brings very little substance to the movie. Despite being one of the better parts of Daredevil, the Elektra depicted here is such a hard character to connect to, it hurts the movie. When you boil comic book heroes down to their barest of skeletons, you can find why people relate to them. Spider-Man is a nerdy little wiener with problems like everyone else. The X-Men are a group of social outcasts with extraordinary gifts. The Hulk is a man whose bad temper gets him in a crapload of trouble. Batman and the Punisher are out to avenge the murders of their families by punishing the wicked. But it's hard to connect to Elektra. It's hard to even like her. She's a cold-blooded killer that's completely devoid of a sense of humor or any other kind of emotion. The Punisher may be a killer, but at least you can understand the means to his madness. Elektra's make less sense. So she's a hitman because she saw her mother die and her father was a strict swimming coach? Color me underwhelmed. Besides, didn't she see her father get murdered too? I could have sworn it was an important plot point in Daredevil. Why isn't she all raw over that? Is it because Bullseye isn't in this movie?
The script, penned by Zak Penn, Stuart Zicherman, and Raven Metzner, leaves a lot to be desired. There is little to no character progression at all, and not only is Elektra a one-dimensional character, but that one dimension is that she's a total bitch for most of the movie. She spends a lot of time being grouchy and telling people to leave her alone, and she even makes a veiled threat to cut off Abby's hands after she steals Elektra's lucky necklace. She just has so little charisma that when she actually starts to open up, we don't care. Why would someone want to make the heroine both antisocial and emotionally detached? Combine that with her line of work, and I'm willing to bet that Elektra's a total sociopath. Her obsessive-compulsive disorder also seems to fall into a plot hole halfway through the movie, ceasing to exist once it becomes inconvenient for the movie. If you're just gonna drop it, why put it in there to begin with? And the apparently budding romantic relationship between Elektra and Mark felt exactly like the love scene from Daredevil: tacked on because the studio wanted some romantic tension, despite a lack of chemistry between the two actors.
It also seems like Joss Whedon had a hand in writing the script, because every villain poofs into a cloud of dust immediately after being killed, akin to Whedon's "Buffyverse" vampires. Why? I don't know, and I doubt the writers know either. It probably has something to do with that "dark arts" thing, I guess. I'm not a regular comics reader, so I'm absolutely clueless regarding that. I also don't get Kirigi. He's supposed to be the movie's Big Bad, but he's not exactly intimidating until he goes all Bruce Lee near the end. Plus there's the fact that his connection to Elektra is insanely weak, and that the character is so hollow that you could cut his head off, yell down his neck, and hear an echo.
Where I will give the movie credit is in Rob Bowman's direction and Christophe Beck's score. Beck's score was quite good, holding a very Asian feel that went with the kung fu tone of the movie. And if anything, Bowman made a movie that at least looked good. The movie seems more like a tribute to Hong Kong wuxiá movies than it does American superheroes, but unfortunately, the film's look is almost as if the producers were aiming to do the American version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That scene with the sheets flapping around everywhere seems like a fight that Zhang Yimou would choreograph, only less interesting. I also have a beef with the cast. Personally, I don't buy Jennifer Garner as a leading lady in an action movie. She was fine in the two fight scenes she had in Daredevil, but I didn't think she was all that great here. She's always seemed to me like she was better off in romantic comedies or dramas, but I've never seen Alias, so what do I know. The rest of the cast all gave rather wooden performances, though I did like Kristin Prout and Terence Stamp. I found Prout's "yeah, whatever" demeanor to be quite welcome, and I enjoyed Stamp, although Stick isn't half as cool as General Zod from Superman II. My only complaint with Stamp's performance is that Stick is supposed to be blind, and very rarely did I get the impression that he actually was. If it were me, I'd have given him some special contact lenses or glued his eyelids shut. He'd act like he was blind then.
People talk about Daredevil being bad, but I don't think Elektra does much to be any better. It's like Catwoman with better fights, acting, and special effects. The characters are flat, the acting is bleh, the action is uninspiring, and the direction is derivative. I said before that the fight scenes weren't very interesting, but the catch is that the whole movie isn't. Elektra is just so incredibly boring that even the cool fight scenes seem tedious. However, the movie can be enjoyed on some level, if you like seeing an attractive female ninja in a red corset kicking the crap out of everybody in sight. And despite being a disposable karate movie with forgettable characters and a waste of acting talent, the movie is an okay addition to the Marvel stable. It's certainly better than Catwoman. I'll give Elektra two stars and leave it at that.
Final Rating: **