Elektra (second review)

Revisiting DAREDEVIL obviously made me want to watch ELEKTRA again – this time in a director’s cut, but the differences are minimal compared to DAREDEVIL’s. It’s a different situation anyway because I actually did enjoy ELEKTRA when I saw it on video back in the day, and even wrote a review of it. So instead of “maybe I’ll like it better now” it was a “will I still like it?” situation. The answer is yes, I did.

That’s not a popular opinion. It was a big flop, and scoffed at from all quarters. Roger Ebert called it “a collision between leftover bits and pieces of Marvel superhero stories.” Manohla Dargis called it “The latest Hollywood movie to give comic books a bad name.” Mick LaSalle wrote, “It’s garbage” and complained that it was “twisted” to open with this contract killer character assassinating someone when “we don’t know what he did to deserve this.” At least David Edelstein said it was “only maybe two-fifths” bad because “these Marvel pictures are starting to blur together” (which now seems like a funny thing for someone to have said then), and he was wise enough to say it paled in comparison to A CHINESE GHOST STORY, THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and THE HEROIC TRIO rather than X-MEN or SPIDER-MAN. Because that’s what it is: one of the American movies that’s not nearly as good as Hong Kong movies. But I still like them.

ELEKTRA was released in January of 2005. The Marvel movies that had come out in the two years since DAREDEVIL were X2: X-MEN UNITED, HULK, THE PUNISHER, SPIDER-MAN 2, and BLADE: TRINITY. I guess of those this is the most like THE PUNISHER – another Marvel movie that got alot of shit but that I really enjoyed as a straight ahead action movie heightened with a little comic book energy.

Most reviews at the time made jokes about Elektra being dead in DAREDEVIL, forgetting that he found a necklace indicating she actually survived. Now we know she didn’t stick around New York – between movies she went to train with the blind master Stick (Chancellor Valorum himself, Terence Stamp!) in the art of Kimagure. “Its masters can see the future, and perhaps even bring back the dead,” he narrates. Some seem to read that to mean that Stick resurrected Elektra, but we see flashes of paramedics doing that with a defibrillator. I think the new life Stick gave her was metaphorical, but then he banished her for being too angry and violent.

So what do you do with your life if you’re too violent for Kung Fu Island? You go into that well-documented-by-movies industry of elite assassination. It’s high-paying, soul-less work and she has a goateed agent (Colin Cunningham, THE 6TH DAY) who worries about her because she kills way more people than necessary. He doesn’t pressure her much when she says she needs a breather, but is happy when she reluctantly accepts the mysterious, high paying gig that will obviously kick off the events of this movie.

I don’t want to skip her re-introduction, though. Elektra has become a legend. A ghost story. After an illustrated prologue narrated by Stick, the opening scene is about DeMarco (Jason Isaacs, WINDTALKERS), a man who says he’s made many enemies, drinking Scotch by a fireplace, waiting for his inevitable death, like Peter Stormare anticipating Baba Yaga in JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2. When he says Elektra is coming for him his bodyguard (Mark Houghton, SNAKES ON A PLANE) laughs. “She’s an urban legend, sir. That woman died years ago.”

(Um, yeah, like I was saying, Daredevil found the necklace at the end. Does nobody else remember this?)

As DeMarco tells the story of previous times Elektra met her private security teams and “cut ‘em down like wheat,” we see the hooded Elektra nimbly sneaking through the building, leaping across rafters, walking in slow motion, draped in shadow, cloak blowing in the wind, fists curled, ready to kill. An alarm goes off, a door is left open, the whole security team has disappeared. As Elektra fights we see her silhouetted hair blowing around, flashes of her face. She calls herself a ghost, whispers in DeMarco’s ear about death. She now wears red like in the comics, saturated to the point of stylization.

Anyway, that other job has her staying in a big fancy house on a little island, waiting two days to find out who the target is. In the meantime she meets a little girl named Abby Miller (Kirsten Prout, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE) who sneaks into the house, and her apologetic widower dad Mark (Goran Višnjić, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, THE COUNSELOR, HELLRAISER). People complain that there’s not enough characterization in this movie, but this is a type of characterization I dig: when Elektra sees a little girl scurrying through her house she throws a knife at her, pinning her sleeve to the wall. And after she lightens up and befriends the girl and her dad, has Christmas dinner with them, and then finds out that they’re who she’s there to kill (duh), there’s a beat as if she’s gonna say she can’t do it, then she coldly tells McCabe “I’ll call you when it’s done,” and runs to get her bow.

Okay, no, obviously she doesn’t shoot them. But she almost does. She pulls it back twice. I’m just impressed how long it takes her to realize she has to call McCabe, tell him she’s not doing it. Not killing a little girl is not her first instinct. And even after she decides not to do it she keeps trying to get out of being the one to protect them. She’d rather just walk away.

We learn other things about Elektra. Her dad she avenged in DAREDEVIL (now played by Kurt Max Runte, ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM) was abusively controlling when she was growing up, pushing her in ways that helped make her like this. As a kid she saw her mother (Jana Mitsoula) die – in her nightmares, a demon (Tom Woodruff Jr., ALIEN 3) did it – which is where some of her darkness comes from. Also she’s OCD, lays out her toiletries in specific ways, counts her steps, scrubs her floors thoroughly.

More importantly though, she does ninja moves, even in ordinary social situations. Disappears suddenly, or seems to teleport. Mark finds her meditating on top of a rock, looks down at his feet for a second, when he looks back up she’s gone. Then he hears “Are you looking for me?” from behind him. That’s just Elektra. That’s how she is.

Oh, one other detail: She wears perfume, according to Stick. Hopefully not on missions. I think she likes Mark though, is what that means. (There’s not a huge spark to the romance in this one, but it’s fine, and pretty minimal. Her current feelings about Matt Murdock are not mentioned, and though they did shoot a brief scene with Affleck as Murdock appearing to her in a dream, they decided to cut it.)

Here’s how you can tell this one’s for us: The villains are not a normal super villain team, but an evil ninja clan called The Hand, whose council meet in a board room in a pagoda-shaped skyscraper, fretting that their men were “killed by the female Elektra, the gaijin.” And (this is the kicker) the chairman, Roshi, is played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (MORTAL KOMBAT)!

That casting is actually the number one signal of what kind of movie we’re dealing with here. If you know who C-HT is then you get it now, right? Roshi finally gives his son Kirigi (Will Yun Lee, TORQUE, THE WOLVERINE) a shot at leading the search for “The Treasure” they seek, which means going after the Millers. I love the part where Elektra shows up at the house, asks Mark if they can talk inside for a second, then steps away to leap up and stab through the roof into a ninja, the score by Christophe Beck (EDGE OF TOMORROW) blaring like crazy, because the brass and strings agree with me on how awesome that part is.

Elektra fights off Hand ninjas, slo-mo back flipping over projectiles, stepping off walls. One of them commits suicide by snapping his own neck and then he turns into toxic green vapor. Korishi leads a squad of elite Hand warriors each with a different look and gimmick. Well, I’m not sure what Kinkou (Edison T. Ribeiro, “Body Guard #1” THE HARD CORPS)’s thing is exactly, but Typhoid (Natassia Malthe, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE) has giant hair and poisons with her breath, touch, and kiss; Stone (Bob Sapp, DEVILMAN, BLOOD AND BONE, CONAN THE BARBARIAN) is impenetrable like a rock until he knocks down a redwood tree and she surfs it down as it lands right on top of him; and the best one is Tattoo, who’s inked up with birds, snakes, wolves, etc. that magically animate, separate from his body and fly around to attack his enemies. In one scene Elektra notices a crow on a graffiti mural and it flies out of the wall, returns to Tattoo’s shoulder, working as his spy (kinda like Soundwave’s cassette tapes on The Transformers).

Don’t get me wrong. If I was the grading type I’d probly give this around a B-, and that might be generous. I just happen to enjoy it as a solid American ninja movie, a classic action template with a little extra comic book flair. I think rather than comparing it to SPIDER-MAN and HULK you gotta think of it in terms of western martial arts hybrids like STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI, NINJA ASSASSIN or BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE, or female-led action movies like COLOMBIANA, PEPPERMINT, MISS BALA, THE RHYTHM SECTION, ANNA, etc. I guess most people look down their noses at those too, but I enjoy that type of thing, and this is that type of thing. No, it doesn’t have super heroics, but it does have ninjas rappelling into a forest, Terence Stamp wearing a gi and teaching stick fighting (plus cleaning up as a blind pool shark), a fight in a hedge maze, an impossible but beautiful move where like seven ninjas leap through a window at the same time but Elektra throws a candle to ignite the gas from the stove and shoot them back out in fireballs, and a two sais vs. two kitanas duel in a room full of sheets magically blowing around and she keeps slicing through them thinking they’re Kirigi’s robe.

(Important note: according to IMDb, the “dancing sheets” were played by Billy Bryan, who was Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in GHOSTBUSTERS and “Pit Bitch” in ARMY OF DARKNESS. A legend!)

I’ve read that they had a rushed production schedule to fit in between Garner filming Alias seasons, and I noticed that they didn’t have the full on Hong Kong wire and fight team like on DAREDEVIL. But to me Garner comes across as more seasoned, more legit in her action. The fight and stunt coordinator is Mike Gunther (IN HELL, BOBBY Z, FAST & FURIOUS, FIGHTING, BUMBLEBEE, 6 UNDERGROUND). He was also Keanu’s stunt double for STREET KINGS and directed an MMA movie I almost forgot about called BEATDOWN starring Rudy Youngblood from APOCALYPTO. The second unit director is Bryan Spicer, director of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE. These are people who know how to make their action lady look cool.

Though I liked Garner as Elektra in DAREDEVIL, this is a much more compelling performance and take on the character. More than one review I read complained that she wasn’t fun like she was in 13 GOING ON 30, but of course I appreciated her transformation into a stoic badass. LaSalle called it “fake feminism” in his review: “Take a cruel, bloodthirsty, homicidal character, but instead of making the character a man, make it a woman. Then pretend you’ve created an exemplar of female strength.”

Okay. I’m not sure who said it was feminism, but fine, it’s not feminism. Now what? It’s still cool! I love this archetype when it’s a man, and it’s more novel to do with a woman. I like that Elektra is cold and grouchy and gives the kid Sarah Connor type tough love so that it’s meaningful when she’s able to be nice. I like that Stick makes her so mad she grabs his throat and yells “Damn you, you sonofabitch!,” so it has impact at the end when she realizes what she’s learned from him and bows to him. And smiles! Where I most disagree with the reviews is that I think this is a genuinely good performance by Garner as a tough lady who hides her vulnerability as much as she can.

There are comic book reasons to disapprove. Fans of the Frank Miller/Bill Sienkewicz book Elektra: Assassin may have dreamed of Verhoevien over-the-top violence and satire. Or maybe they just couldn’t accept an Elektra without black hair and the durag thing. But I don’t get the sense that most of the dismissals came from people familiar with the character, so I truly don’t understand the hatred. It was a notorious flop, savagely reviewed, used by executives as an excuse not to make more female led super hero or action movies (as per the Sony leak). And as far as I’ve noticed it’s never received any kind of critical re-evaluation. (I don’t count. I always enjoyed it.)

One way you gotta admit it was ahead of its time for comic book movies: isn’t it the first spin-off? CATWOMAN was originally gonna be Michelle Pfeiffer from BATMAN RETURNS, but it evolved into something else. Maybe I’m forgetting something obvious, but I believe ELEKTRA is the first time a specific interpretation of a supporting character in a comic book movie got their own separately titled movie, now standard practice. Show some respect for a pioneer!

ELEKTRA is the fourth (and so far final) feature film directed by Rob Bowman, the long time TV director who also gave us AIRBORNE, THE X FILES movie, and REIGN OF FIRE. It was written by Zak Penn (LAST ACTION HERO, X2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE AVENGERS, READY PLAYER ONE) and Stuart Zicherman (A.C.O.D.) & M. Raven Metzner (Six Degrees).

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 5th, 2024 at 7:00 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Comic strips/Super heroes, Martial Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Elektra (second review)”

  1. I probably liked this more than Daredevil, tbh…
    It’s been awhile, but I saw it a half-price matinee, and felt I got what I paid for. At least it didn’t annoy me, which is more than I can say for double-d.

    (ps I used to generally like David Edelstein when he was with the Post. But once he moved up in the world — or down, depending on your pov — he sorta lost something)

  2. Maybe not the point — I don’t think I’ve ever seen this– but I always thought it was a shame that it more or less ruined the directorial career of Rob Bowman, who was a big part of making the X-Files look so cinematic that it raised the whole game for TV shows, and I think could have been a real solid journeyman if he’d ever got another chance at a real movie. both X Files The Movie and Reign of Fire are a lot of silly, classically-constructed fun, anyway (cant speak to Airborne or this, but it sounds like ELECTRA at least looks nice)

  3. I couldn’t, in good conscience, join the ELEKTRA fan club. But I do think it was unfairly shat-upon, and it is better than DAREDEVIL. This feels like an upgraded version of a Cynthia Rothrock movie.

    The biggest issue for me here is the casting. Like Michael Clarke Duncan, Jennifer Garner is a performer with an unusually warm and welcoming smile, and their corresponding characters just aren’t that. Elektra smiles, sure, but it’s sort of a “You’re about to die” smile, whereas Garner has that sweet “You’re my favorite person!” toothy grin. And she definitely is not Greek!

    Never got how the copyrights worked for this stuff. The Hand is a major Marvel concept, and surely included in the rights package FOX originally leased from Marvel. They also seem to crop up in FOX’s “The Wolverine”, but don’t they call them “The Black Hand” in that one? Why did they need to so carefully avoid the suggestion that Elektra and The Wolverine just might share bits of the same universe? Only hardcores would pick up on it, and everyone else wouldn’t bat an eye. I am also pretty sure there is more than one ninja clan that opted for “The Hand” as a badass honorific. As always, citation required.

  4. This is one of those movies that I don’t think I have ever seen all the way through but I have seen many parts of it many times. Any time it was on TV and I was channel surfing I was staying there at least until the commercial break. But I wasn’t going to stick around through 2 minutes of ads. So therefore I am not sure I have actually seen the entire movie. I have the same relationship with BATTLEFIELD EARTH.

    The hedge maze fight is the standout for me, it is brilliantly looney and a clear inspiration for the Harry Potter part 4 hedge maze sequence. They should sue Mrs Moneybags JK Rowling.

    I am afraid the character building with the young girl is the weakest part for me though. I remember it going on way too long.

    Jennifer Garner look kinda like a young Linda Hamilton sometimes in the right light? Something about her reminds me of Sarah Conner sitting across from the psychiatrist in T2 with her hair hanging in her face and her pouty lower lip sticking out.

  5. The (White) Hand was the orc army of Saruman. Some of them were probably ninjas.

  6. I saw this opening day (which I think was the same in the UK and US, still quite rare at the time) just because I was a teenager with a Friday night on my hands, I still hadn’t seen DAREDEVIL at the time, though like much of the critical establishment at the time I “knew” Elektra “died” in it; I think I thought this was a SCORPION KING or DEATH RACE 2 type prequel where we weren’t supposed to think too hard about where the character ended up.

    I didn’t like it much at the time, but it could be charged that I didn’t go in with much respect to begin with. However if you recall during the Weird Summer recap we discussed how LITTLE NEMO had “cartoon brain”, I think this would be better if it had a little less “Comic Book Brain”. It’s not enough that Elektra is a leather clad ninja warrior assassin, on the occasions that she’s supposed to snipe people she’s got to do it with a big, stupid and decidedly conspicuous cartoon bow and arrow thing. It’s not enough that she’s being chased by a badass ninja clan, one of the ninjas has got to have living tattoo animals coming out of him. I know what you’re thinking; don’t we have plenty of AMERICAN NINJAs and so forth, doesn’t the Comic Book Brain make this more unique? I agree; in theory! The problem is I don’t think the comic book stuff here is cool. PUNISHER 1989 is an example of a film where the “80s Action Movie Brain” won out over “Comic Book Brain”. “OK, he can be a vigilante who lives in the sewers, and he can have a wacky Limey actor sidekick, but we draw the line at him wearing a Skull T-Shirt all the time like it’s a superhero costume, that’s just silly”. So I feel like PUNISHER 89 is a purer version of what this was going for.

    Good attempt to bring me around on Livingtats by comparing him to Soundwave though.

    It’s interesting to me that spin-offs and prequels were something Hollywood tried to make happen for 20-30 years before they became kind of standard. Obviously CATWOMAN is an example of a planned and somewhat logical spin-off that didn’t come together, and on a Berry tip the summer of the CATWOMAN that actually got made we were supposed to get JINX, starting Hale Berry’s character from DIE ANOTHER DAY and for some reason directed by Stephen Fears, but it fell apart for whatever reason (we still haven’t had an on screen, live action Bond spin-off, but with Amazon owning it in the 2020s it’s surely only a matter of time). Both THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and STAR TREK VI were initially planned to be prequels some 20 years before their respective franchises went the origin story route. As with more elements of mainstream filmmaking than many would like to admit I think the SW Prequels were the harbinger of change here (sorry, BUTCH & SUNDANCE: THE EARLY YEARS). So maybe ELEKTRA is like the PHANTOM MENACE of Marvel/comic book movies

  7. Mr. Subtlety:

    I’m gonna push back a little on the comment that THE X-FILES (1993-2002) raised the cinematic level of tv shows. By the time X-FILES hit the air all of television had been forced to entirely rethink its visual game because of MIAMI VICE (1984-1989.)

  8. I would say it was the trifecta of MIAMI VICE, TWIN PEAKS and X-FILES.

  9. Just recalling where the character was in Daredevil… why does this person become an (almost) child-killing assassin? Yeah, she’s that way in the comics, but from what I recall, she goes normal person (with retconned-in abusive backstory/dead mom), then out for revenge for dead father, then realizes someone else killed her father… Bullseye’s still alive as of this writing… so now she’s a merciless assassin-for-hire? Does this really follow from what we know of Elektra? I guess I should’ve read a lot more into her being willing to spin-kick a blind guy…

    Maybe I’m a hypocrite, though, since I think they would’ve been better off adapting something unique from the comics instead of a hodgepodge of action movie cliches. We’ve got the assassin who refuses to kill their target and teams up with them instead (just like The Replacement Killers). The badass protecting small child (just like T2!). The little kid with incredible power/destiny (just like T2 again!). (The ninja stuff is admittedly novel, I’ll give them that.) I know we all like playing the hits around here, but if you’re going to adapt a comic known for being really weird and European, why turn it into a latter-day Luc Besson movie with a few sais?

  10. I’m just saying, one of Elektra’s best-known comics has her Freaky Fridaying people to fight a ninja antichrist Ronald Reagan. Don’t you think that has a little more potential than “the bad guys are after us, let’s hide out on a farm”?

  11. Well, Vern made me finally check it out and I kinda agree with it having a bunch of cool shit that makes it not unwatchable. Sadly it is wrapped in the blandest possible early 00s comic book movie script. So…yeah, I’m on team “Not as bad as its reputation”, but I surely won’t defend it to anybody who hates it. (Unless they think a bunch of evil ninjas who explode in green smoke when they die with no explanation are lame. Because they are not!)

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