Less than Electrifying
Why must movie superheroes be so conflicted? Comic book authors make them that way, yet that doesn't fully explain attempts to infuse what are fundamentally movies about action, movement and visuals with psychological substance, since filmmakers aren't known for being faithful to source material. Where is it written that only a superhero divided against herself can triumph?
Because artistic and commercial success both require a layer of meaning or subtext, however thin, beneath the images flickering on screen, you can't blame scribes and directors for trying. The problem is how they go about giving superheroes a personality that goes deeper than their outfits and physical prowess.
In the static and plainly derivative Elektra filmmakers rely on two trends. They slap on a coating of hooey borrowed from the old TV series "Kung Fu" and the Chinese martial arts flicks that have crossed over in recent years. Second, they diagnose their assassin, wearing a red bodice and matching hip-huggers, with that singularly American syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Surely skill at kicking butt has less mundane psychological origins.
Fortunately, Jennifer Garner is easy to watch. Elektra's appeal begins and ends with her corporeal screen presence, illustrating the theory that no matter the genre, the human face is what draws us into the movie theater. She's got a great one, and it sits atop a chiseled chassis worthy of a Greek statue.
Her androgyny suits the character and this somberly muddled flick. Leading with bulging lips (collagen alert?) and jutting belly button -- and wearing bangs that lend a vaguely Asian look to her features -- the sidekick to Ben Affleck's blind vigilante in 2003's Daredevil frantically tries to conquer her fears and soar. All she's missing is levity.
If you suspect you might tire of gazing upon this resplendent creature, skip Elektra. What's going on in her head, underneath her skin and all around her, isn't worth it.
Billed as the only thing capable of besting the evil organization called The Hand, Elektra has a Hollywood-like agent who books her killing gigs. Her latest job takes her to an island in the Pacific Northwest where she encounters a father (Goran Visnjic) and his daughter (Kristen Prout). Most of the time she tries to shake off nightmares about a childhood incident in her mother's boudoir and flashbacks to her truncated tutorial with a blind sensei (Terence Stamp), who schooled her in various arts, stopping short of Kimagure, bringing people back from the dead.
The screenwriters cannot drum up any surprises and the plot about a "treasure" both sides are seeking doesn't scan. Villainous operatives called Stone, Tattoo, and Typhoid are recycled from X-Men. The latter does plant a long kiss on E's lips, but for every sensuous thrill there are exchanges like: "You speak in riddles, old man." "It keeps my students alert." Or questions such as: "Is this a test, sensei?" Of course it is woman! Get on with it and stop nervously organizing your toilet articles to fend off anxiety.
It's too much to expect a superhero with no issues. But why are they all haunted by the death of a parent and/or some past misdeed that requires so-called redemption? Can't they be serious and carefree? Defending Good from Evil is hard work, yet scenarists should go easier on them, and us. We're accustomed to heroes (super or otherwise) being weak and filled with doubt one minute and ruthless killing machines the next. The psychology is not flawed, just old and tired.
Elektra doesn't offer a viable feminist variation on this superhero duality. And not because in the heat of action she appears to be in a "Penthouse" pictorial. Nothing here is as absurd as last year's Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman, which went for outright camp and failed. Still, it's more akin to Catwoman than Hero or House of Flying Daggers.
Elektra grapples with her own feelings and not enough with the enemy. She's not fleet-footed, emotionally or physically --not even aided by fairly rudimentary special effects that allow her to move quickly and silently from point A to point B. That's the conundrum of Elektra. The heroine is so bogged down in her own phobias, she's fast but slow, sexy yet ultimately asexual. Her inner turmoil is paralyzing.
Quentin Tarantino, arguably most responsible for popularizing Asian martial arts films stateside, made Uma Thurman's assassin in Kill Bill physically and psychologically compelling, but it took him two movies to do so. By comparison, Elektra is a weak cup of green tea.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for action violence.)