ELEKTRA - DVD review

...while it's still a mass of sentiment and clichés, I must admit I didn't find myself yawning as much this second time through.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

As fans of the genre know, 2004 and 2005 were banner years for female superhero flops. First, there was Halle Berry's "Catwoman"; then there was Jennifer Garner's "Elecktra," both released within about six months of each other.

Fox's "Elektra" was a spin-off of their "Daredevil" movie, which did not impress me in its theatrical edition but which I liked quite a bit better in its later Director's Cut. The reedited "Daredevil" added more depth to the personality and motivations of the main character and opened up an engaging sub plot. Could the Director's Cut of "Elektra" equal the Director's Cut of "Daredevil" in turning a sow's ear into a silk purse?

Not really.

"Daredevil" added almost half an hour of new material to the mix, strengthening every aspect of the show from story to action to character development. The timing of the "Elektra" Director's Cut is about two minutes longer than the theatrical version, and, as far as I can tell, the new edition strengthens things only marginally. The advantage that comes of the additional footage is that Fox can legitimately call the new edition "unrated," since it was never submitted to the Motion Picture Ratings Board. Every little thing helps a studio in marketing a product.

However, all is not lost because the Director's Cut is, as I say, a tad better than the theatrical version, plus where the first DVD edition had very few extras, this new Director's Cut comes with an audio commentary, a DTS soundtrack (in addition to Dolby Digital), and a second disc of bonus materials. There must be "Elektra" fans for whom this is good news.

The first thing I had to determine, though, was just how much new material was actually in the Director's Cut. Just because the timing indicated that it was only a couple of minutes longer than the theatrical version didn't necessarily mean that only a few minutes had been added. For all I knew, the director could have deleted a full hour of old material and replaced it by sixty-two minutes of new stuff. However, it had been almost a year since I had watched the theatrical version, and unlike Fox's extended version of "Alien Vs. Predator," there is no optional, on-screen marker to indicate where new material had been changed or inserted.

So I relied on the director and the film editor in their Director's Cut commentary track to steer me in the right direction. It was only after listening to them for 102 minutes that I realized there wasn't a whole lot that was new about this new version. The changes the director and editor talk about are exceptionally small, so small as to have been inconsequential to me if the filmmakers hadn't pointed them out. The back of the keep case announces "more eye popping action" and "added visual effects," but you could have fooled me. In any case, the Director's Cut does no harm and very slightly does improve the situation, which surely needed improving.

Let's start with the movie itself. I am not one of those people who subscribes to the notion that "Elektra" failed with critics and the public because it was a male-hating, women's lib picture. That's the kind of nonsense talked up by a relative few insecure, possibly paranoid men. The theatrical version failed simply because it wasn't very good. Like so much that is made in Hollywood these days, "Elektra" was a product created from the misguided notion that movie audiences want a maximum number of fights, chases, quick edits, loud noises, and deaths, with a minimum of plot, characterization, or heart. Yet if you look at the superhero films that have fared best over the years, like "Superman," "Batman," and "Spider-Man," you find stories with plot, characterization, and, above all, heart. In "Elektra" we simply have a character who takes up where she left off in "Daredevil," no matter that she was supposed to have died in that movie, carrying on as an assassin in a totally mechanical, humorless, heartless manner. Attempts to infuse her character with some background flashbacks are largely ineffectual and often confusing, even though the Director's Cut attempts to minimize the damage.

"Elektra" begins with an offscreen narrator, presumably Elektra's wise, old, blind mentor, Stick (Terrence Stamp), telling us that the story we are about to see concerns the forces of good and evil. "The evil," he says, "has taken many forms and used the darkest arts. In our time, they call themselves simply 'The Hand.' The good follow the way of Kimaguri. Its Masters can see the future and perhaps even bring back the dead." Thus was Elektra brought back from the dead to fight evil, although we're also told that both sides seek her out as "a weapon in an ancient war." In other words, she kind of gets thrown around from one side to the other.

Nevertheless, she's certainly in demand. So in demand that she has her own agent. I kid you not. Her business representative, McCabe (Colin Cunningham), arranges assignments to keep her occupied. Evidently, Elektra gets bored really fast unless she's killing somebody, and she is an amazingly efficient killing machine. In fact, she seems to enjoy her work immensely and explains to McCabe that the more she kills, the better it is for her image, her mystique. "You know," says one of the baddies at the beginning of the movie, "the better the assassin, the closer they can get to you before you know they're there." Elektra moves like a ghost.

Elektra doesn't have any superhuman abilities, but she's agile and deadly and very, very quick. She has been taught the art of anticipating her opponent's every move, so she can maneuver from one place to another, be somewhere else, in the blink of an eye. That comes in handy pretty often.

But before the actual plot kicks in, we get a good deal of deadly dull back story, flashbacks and nightmares about Elektra's past, none of which includes even the barest mention of Daredevil, I might add. You'd think that Matt Murdock never existed in her life, despite her supposed love for the poor fellow (and to say nothing of her penchant for blind guys).

So, about a third of the way into the movie the actual story line develops. Elektra is assigned to kill a neighbor of hers, a man named Mark Miller (Goran Visnjic) and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Abby (Kirsten Proust). Naturally, Elektra can't do it and decides to protect them instead. But why, and from whom or from what?

Meanwhile, "The Hand" is trying to find something they refer to cryptically only as the "Treasure," which is somehow connected to the father and daughter. "The Hand's" Master, Roshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), agrees to let his son, Kirigi (Will Yun Lee), attempt to find the "Treasure" when all else fails. Kirigi heads up a task force that consists of various folks called Typhoid, Kinkou, Tattoo, and Stone, a formidable crew to say the least. Too bad they don't live up to the toughness of their names because when the time comes to wind things up, Elektra makes relatively easy work of them.

From the point where Elektra starts defending the man and girl, the movie becomes almost all run, chase, and fight, with intermittent moments of slow, almost silent mysticism and tedium.

The characters are based on the ones created by Frank Miller for Marvel Comics, and the movie is directed by Rob Bowman, who was known earlier in his career for TV work on projects like "Quantum Leap," "Bay Watch," and "The X Files." Then he branched out into feature films with "The X Files" movie and 2002's Armageddon dragon tale, "Reign of Fire." "Elektra" is a continuation of the same for him, TV-type hocus-pocus and vague occultism, with as much attention to atmosphere as to action. Normally, I would consider this a good thing, except that in this case the atmosphere has little depth; it doesn't create much genuine feeling, much sense of danger or mystery. Like Garner, who embodies an intentionally soulless character, the atmospherics look good and would appear to mean something but are ultimately rather empty.

Still, the Director's Cut of "Elektra" benefits to a small degree from its additional few minutes of inserts; and while it's still a mass of sentiment and clichés, I must admit I didn't find myself yawning as much this second time through.

The video quality of the first edition's DVD transfer was quite good, but this Director's Cut looks to me a little too dark. The picture is presented in a ratio stretching to approximately 2.14:1 across my television, done up in anamorphic widescreen (enhanced for 16x9 TVs), and transferred at a high bit rate. This makes for some especially deep black levels, which this time around seemed a little too intense, not admitting as much detail as they might. Understand, though, that this is a typical Frank Miller noir subject, so most scenes are going to be dark, the few bright, flashy shots standing out considerably. There are also a few shimmering lines, some very minor haloing (or some extreme backlighting), and a somewhat glassy appearance to the image. Fortunately, object definition is fairly good, at least everywhere but in the darkest scenes, and colors are fairly vibrant.

The disc's audio quality remains almost entirely excellent, now available in DTS 5.1 as well as Dolby Digital 5.1. DTS enthusiasts will enjoy the increased bass levels, but the DD 5.1 track I listened to was ample enough, opening up an all-enveloping surround experience. We're always in the midst of the action, whether we want to be or not. A strong dynamic impact makes every punch feel like it's hitting you personally. And, of course, we are encircled by the sounds of thunder, rain, footsteps, birds, trees, creaking doors, musical ambiance, you name it.

Disc one contains the feature film, plus the new audio commentary I alluded to earlier by the film's director, Rob Bowman, and its editor, Kevin Stitt. In addition, the first disc contains a theatrical teaser and trailer; twenty-eight scene selections but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles.

I was hoping the audio commentary would shed some light on the changes the filmmakers made in this new Director's Cut, but Bowman and Stitt preferred to talk more about the edits they made to the original version, making only passing references to the few seconds here or there of new material. Apparently, the studio had a good deal to say about what they put in and left out of the original edit, a veiled suggestion, perhaps, about who was ultimately to blame for the lukewarm reception the theatrical release received. However, the filmmakers never let on that the movie is anything but a smashing success and spend a good deal of time complimenting one another on their work and congratulating themselves on the results. From time to time, the fellows also completely forget about the movie at hand and discuss something else entirely--film editing, for example--ignoring what's happening on screen. When the director finds time to talk about the movie, he does say that he would rather have worked more on dialogue and characterization than on the special effects but that the studio wanted the action scenes above all. More buck passing, I'd guess. Bowman also takes issue with the film's critics, saying he thought he had made a good, old-fashioned comic-book superhero movie that was really about people, and he insinuates that maybe critics weren't picking up on all the film's fine subtleties. For instance, he mentions the brief insert where Abby is playing a pinball game, saying the balls bouncing around in the machine were supposed to symbolize Elektra's being bounced around among the various forces in the story. Fair enough. I did like the additional footage of Elektra foreseeing her own death, which increases our understanding of her dilemma a touch more, and I appreciated the few frames added to several death scenes, which help create a greater impact. Otherwise, there's still not much depth to the movie.

Disc two contains a ton of extras, but there is little except a comic-book feature that held much interest for me. The items are divided into two categories, "The Film" and "The Mythology." Under "The Film," we have a long, two-part documentary, "Relentless: The Making of Elektra, Part 1: Production," eighty-one minutes long; and "Relentless: The Making of Elektra, Part 2: Post-Production," fifty-three minutes. They are typical making-of docs, more detailed than most but not particularly enlightening. The first one deals with the actual filming of the movie, and the second one deals with various things like film editing, music, and color correction, but both of them can become tedious pretty fast. Next, there is a multi-angle segment, "Showdown at the Well," that allows the viewer to choose watching it from four different camera angles. After that are three deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Bowman and Stitt: "Sai Approach," "Come Back To Me," and "Rounding Up the Troops"; followed by six alternate or extended scenes, again with commentary: An alternate beginning, "Young Elektra Throws Coin into Well," "Young Elektra Buries Sais," "Sais Out of Ground," an alternate Elektra and Abby scene, and "Go Game." The final items in "The Film" category are photo galleries: "Costumes," "Production Design," "Weapons," "Unit Photography," and "Storyboards."

"The Mythology" section is more intriguing, especially the fifty-two-minute documentary "Elektra: Incarnations," wherein we get to look at the evolution of the Elektra comic-book character as told by the artists and writers who created her. That's followed by a fifteen-minute segment called "Elektra in Greek Mythology," wherein a professor of Greek Studies discusses the history of the Greek Elektra (or Electra) in literature and her influence today.

Parting Shots:
For all its good intents, and you can see director Rob Bowman, film editor Kevin Stitt, and actress Jennifer Garner were giving their all to a vacuous script, the Director's Cut is still so filled out with posturing and pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo and forced sentimentality that it has trouble getting off the ground. Some small parts of the movie look spectacular in a "Crouching Tiger" sort of way, and the cinematography in places is stunning, but even with the added material "Elektra" remains a PG-13 could-have-been.


Film Value