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ELEKTRA
Director's Cut

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jennifer Garner, Terence Stamp, Goran Visnjic, Kirsten Prout, Natassia Malthe, Will Yun Lee, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagama
Director: Rob Bowman
Audio: English DTS 5.1 or Dolby Digital Surround 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Commentary, Relentless: The Making of Elektra, Elektra: Incarnations, Elektra in Greek Mythology, deleted and alternate/extended scenes, multi-angled dailies, stills and storyboard galleries, teaser, trailer
Length: 99 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 2005

"Don't worry, death's not that bad."

Film ** ½

Fine literature and lore are filled with fatal couplings - Samson and Delilah, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, to name some famous pairs.  On the other extreme end of the spectrum, the less lofty and less cultivated comic book format has also had its share of ill-fated romances - Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey, Cyclops and Jean Grey, or Daredevil and Elektra, for instance.

Remember Elektra?  The last we saw of this erstwhile female assassin in the movies, she had just stabbed her super-hero lover through the shoulder in the flick Daredevil, only to get her comeuppance moments later when the villain Bullseye impaled her with her own sai blade.  Talk about quick repayment of a karmic debt!  Elektra's undignified and inglorious death was, of course, faithful to her actual demise in the "Daredevil" comic book.  Nonetheless, if there is one universal law that comic book fans have come to understand and appreciate, it must surely be that no one ever stays dead for long.  Villains and vigilantes alike are always finding clever ways to cheat death.

And so it is with Elektra, who despite perishing like a human shish-kebob in Daredevil has returned to life to star in her own "sequel," simply entitled Elektra (2005).  Reincarnation is as inevitable in comic books (and comic book movies) as it is in eastern religion.  Appropriately enough, the "new" Elektra has even discovered a new sense of spiritualism, practicing yoga and debuting a limited mystical ability - kimagure - to see into the future.

Returning for a second go-around as Elektra Natchios is the fetching Jennifer Garner.  This time, Garner is now garbed in a more faithful rendition of the classic Elektra costume, unlike that off-color leather contraption she wore in Daredevil.  Fanboys can rejoice!  There's simply nothing quite as visually stimulating as a dainty super-heroine in skimpy, red, cleavage-revealing attire beating up a muscle-bound steroid freak masquerading as the villain-of-the-week.  Or, in this case, villains, as represented by the super-powered assassins of the evil Order of the Hand clan.

In Elektra's corner is Stick (Terence Stamp), a mysterious and blind mentor who once instructed Elektra on how to wield her powers (in the "Daredevil" comic book, Stick was originally the mentor of Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil).  Stick's agenda is unclear, but after Elektra survives several deadly encounters with The Hand, she seeks out her former mentor, who once again becomes Elektra's personal sensei and slowly guides her back to the path of light from her current profession as an assassin.

In the film's opening premise, Elektra has returned from the dead (don't ask) to become a merciless killer-for-hire.  Her latest mission entails neutralizing some unlucky sap named Mark Miller (ER's Goran Visnjic) and his young daughter Abby (Kirsten Prout, resembling a young Renée Zellweger).  Why?  Because.  However, Elektra botches the job after she is stricken with a sudden, conscientious case of mushy killer-with-a-heart-of-gold sentimentality.  Not to worry - assassins under the employment of The Hand arrive to finish the job and perhaps to educate Elektra on the errors of her ways.  Educate with extreme prejudice, that is.

After summarily dispatching these latest nuisances from The Hand, Elektra leads Mark and Abby Miller away to safety and slowly uncovers the secret that has made this seemingly normal family the target of such a deadly foe as The Hand.  In the process, Elektra even begins to ponder the righteousness of her existence and vocation.  In the comics, Elektra was a cold-blooded assassin who operated in an urban criminal underworld ruled by the Kingpin.  In this movie, throw in some guilt over her mother's death, saddle the character with a soggy neuroticism, à la obsessive-compulsive disorder, and suddenly you have one mopping heroine.  Angst worked for Spiderman, and the familial guilt trip worked for Batman, but for Elektra, these characteristics dilute her mystery and allure.  At one point, Elektra even refers to herself as a "soccer mom."  Pfft.  Larger-than-life, mythical heroines simply do not say such things, even in jest!

However, the heroine of a mainstream Hollywood movie apparently can't be an entirely cold-blooded killer, so during the course of Elektra, we see Elektra change for the better.  Regardless, this kinder and gentler Elektra is still one person you wouldn't want to encounter down some dark...garden path (the movie has traded Daredevil's nocturnal cityscapes and concrete jungles for sylvan landscapes, sparse jungles, and elaborate hedge mazes).

A central theme of Elektra suggests that the path to enlightenment assumes many disguises.  Stick, initially unable to help her, has allowed Elektra to forge her own path in the world until she is able to control the rage inside of her and is ready to return to him for further spiritual guidance.  The film even starts with the premise of ancient prophecies proclaiming the appearance someday of a conflicted Chosen One, a woman who by her life's decisions will tip the balance in the eternal battle between Good and Evil.  Consider Elektra then a "Kung Fu"-style film, the chief differences being that the protagonist is female, there is little actual martial artistry on display, and the setting has shifted to a wooded arena populated predominately by Caucasian actors.

For most fans, though, the film's true raison d'être will be its action scenes.  Sadly, Elektra's death knell in the theaters was probably the ill-advised decision to pigeon-hole this film into a PG-13 rating.  The fight sequences are all too infrequent and brief and too often involve mostly running around or striking sultry poses and stances.  The best stunts, for the most part, are computer-enhanced, and the best violence is only suggested or is off-screen.  At least on this director's cut, additional footage is shown, although fans expecting more blood and guts will be very disappointed.  As with TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," vanquished enemies still vanish in a puff of yellow smoke.  There are no guts, no splattering, no blood, just clean and hygienic deaths.

Furthermore, the fight choreography displays an over-reliance on CG effects, with cinematography and editing so stylized that the action is drained of any spontaneity or vitality.  One might as well flip rapidly through a book of pretty pictures for the same general effect.  In short, what worked so wondrously in films like Hero or House of Flying Daggers has been bastardized in Elektra.  Only the climactic fight between Elektra and Kirigi (Will Yun Lee), an apparent successor to the leadership of The Hand, has real electricity.  Unfortunately, it is edited so hectically that following the action is difficult, and the fight ends too quickly as well.

On the bright side, the visuals possess the viscerally highly-polished oomph and oohh quality that audiences have come to expect from Hollywood action flicks.  One can just about sense Elektra's deadly skills as she grinds villains' craniums into sawdust or scrambles innards into coagulated goo.  The supervillains are insanely fast and sport some wicked abilities, too.  One villain, appropriately named Tattoo, is covered with animalistic body art that bursts into life and obeys his every command.  Another, Stone, is an incredible hulk of a man who ultimately gets flattened like some dumb punk.  Villainess Typhoid Mary (Natassia Malthe) is truly a femme fatale - her lethal kisses are to die for.  Sadly, Typhoid Mary has been trivialized in this movie (although she was Elektra's romantic successor for Daredevil in the Marvel comic), and the big, expectant clash between super-chicks regrettably never materializes.  It's just another disappointing bam, puff of smoke, and the fight's over.

In the end, Elektra, despite some very impressive visuals, fails to live up to the standards set by the likes of the Spiderman and X-Men franchises.  The action, while exciting at times, is mostly un-involving and too intermittent to truly draw in the audience.  The blame for Elektra's flaws must surely fall upon the shoulders of director Rob Bowman and his screenwriter.  This film has significant pacing problems, and the character development scenes don't seem to progress anywhere or with any real conviction.  Even the new extra footage (involving mostly character development scenes and a few action sequence extensions) feels extraneous and unnecessary.  After a mildly intriguing opening assassination sequence, Elektra bogs down for nearly one hour of dull moping and running.  As for the actual script, well, I've seen better storylines for computer games.  The character of Elektra still holds a lot of promise, but she may have to wait to be reborn in a new movie to really live up to her full potential.

Video ****

Elektra is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen format.  At 99 minutes, the film is about three minutes longer than the original theatrical cut.  Whether or not that justifies an extra purchase may depend more on the bonus features than on any actual minor changes to this "director's cut" edition.

However, Elektra still bursts from the screen in a vibrant display of motion, whirling colors, and quite evocative lighting.  Hollywood polish and sheen are on full display here, and Elektra admittedly looks wickedly cool with an excellent transfer to match.  Skin tones are accurate, black levels are very solid, and the transfer is quite exceptional.

Audio ****

Elektra demonstrates the power of DTS with a rocking-loud English DTS 5.1 track that offers a truly exciting aural environment.  Meeker audiophiles can opt for the Dolby Digital 5.1, but the DTS track, not surprisingly, is the more dynamic and immersive one and should be the track of choice on capable home audio systems.

The sound has also been sweetened on this "director's cut" version of Elektra.  The soundtrack has been remixed specifically for the home theater setting.  Check out the package insert for a brief note from director Rob Bowman explaining the new changes made to the film's picture and sound.

Features ****

Not surprisingly, the bonus features on this two-disc "director's cut" version of Elektra blow away the relatively short-circuited offerings on the original DVD release.  If you liked Elektra but have not yet purchased the film, then now is the right time to do so.

Disc One holds the film, a teaser, a trailer, and a new commentary by director Rob Bowman and editor Kevin Stitt.  The commentary is fun and energetic but does not offer anything really revelatory or anything that cannot be gleamed elsewhere in this two-DVD set.  Bowman and Stitt mostly discuss the construction, lighting, and editing of various scenes and also point out changes made for the "director's cut" version of the film.

The remainder of the bonus features are on Disc Two.  The main attraction here is the documentary Relentless: The Making of Elektra, which comes in two parts.  The first part covers the production itself, while the second part looks at the post-production work.  Each section is quite long, so set aside enough spare time if you wish to watch the documentary in its entirety in one seating.  The first half of Relentless (87 min.) has narration by Rob Bowman and shows many of the action sequences being rehearsed or performed for the camera.  There are even a few deleted action sequences not found on this disc's "deleted scenes" section.  The highlight of this first half was watching popular K1 fighter Bob Sapp ("Stone") literally lifting up Jennifer Garner like a weightless twig and twirling her about in one arm!  Sapp is one hefty monster of a man!  The reward for scariest actor, though, must go to the frightfully real wolf used in Elektra; we get to see a lot more of this not-entirely-tamed creature in the documentary than we see in the film.

The second half of Relentless (53 min.) is more technical and perhaps less interesting to the casual fan.  Editing and splicing techniques are discussed somewhat dryly along with a quick glance at the scoring, the color correction, and sound mixing.  There is a small portion about the special effects, too.  This documentary concludes with bloopers shown over the closing credits, so be sure to watch until the end.

Showdown at the Well is a short "multi-angle dailies" section offering a look at four different takes of the climactic clash between Elektra and Kirigi.  You can use the "angle" button on the remote to switch between several viewable camera angles of the fight.

If you're wondering where Daredevil is during the proceedings in Elektra, check out the three deleted scenes.  These are the same ones as seen on the original Elektra disc and come with optional commentary by Rob Bowman and Kevin Stitt.  "Sai Approach" is an initial aborted attempt by Elektra to assassinate the Miller family.  "Come Back to Me" offers a bittersweet dream sequence with Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, Daredevil's alter-ego.  "Rounding Up the Troops" is a short scene between Stick and Matt Miller after Elektra and Miller's daughter have vanished.  There are also six alternate/extended scenes, again with optional commentary by Bowman.  The first is an alternate opening (with its corresponding closing sequence), while most of the remaining scenes are dream sequences or flashbacks involving the young Elektra.

There are five art galleries.  The first three, for costumes (26 stills), production design (18), and weapons (4), contain production artwork.  The unit photography gallery contains 84 production photographs.  Also available is an extensive storyboards gallery with seven sections - "Elektra in Pool," "Mark's House," "Alley/Hawk," "Abby in the Woods," "In the Maze," "Kirigi's Death," and "Natchios Estate."  Most of these storyboards center on major action sequences from the film, and there are well over 300 individual frames to look over.  Have fun.

Elektra: Incarnations (53 min.) focuses upon the various renditions of the heroine in the Marvel universe.  This documentary will appeal strongly to comic book fans of the character.  Interview clips with major contributors to the Elektra character are accompanied by a continual stream of artwork from various Daredevil comics or Elektra graphic novels.  Frank Miller, writer and penciller extraordinaire, starts the proceedings with comments about Elektra, the character he created for the Daredevil comic book back in the late 1970's.  Miller also wrote a couple of graphic novels based upon Elektra, and his rendition of her remains to this day the gold standard against which any other interpretations are judged.  Also on hand is Klaus Janson, Miller's regular inker for the Daredevil comic book.  Janson's comments are particularly insightful from an artist's standpoint, and aspiring cartoonists or future comic book illustrators will want to pay attention to his comments.

Illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz likewise offers his thoughts.  Sienkiewicz was the illustrator on "Elektra Assassin," one of the first "painted" graphic novels ever produced.  He speaks at length about the impact and influence of "Elektra Assassin," which was penned by Frank Miller.

The remaining comments are by two later Marvel writers.  Both Brian Michael Bendis, who revisited the Elektra in 2001's "Elektra: The Scorpio Key," and Greg Rucka, who wrote other recent Elektra graphic novels including one with Wolverine, offer honest assessments of their work in comparison to Frank Miller's original interpretation of the character.

Blood Feud: The Greek Tragedy of Elektra (15 min.) is a fascinating interview with Greek university professor Katerina Zacharia (chosen for her youthful resemblance to the comic heroine, perhaps?).  Do not be fooled by not-so-coincidental appearances, however; Zacharia gives this featurette such an informed and scholarly tone that it seems a more suited candidate for a History Channel documentary than for a comic superheroine DVD.  Zacharia recounts the Mycenaean Greek tragedy concerning the downfall of the House of Atreus and its greatest son, Agamemnon following the Trojan War (check out a copy of Aeschylus' The Oresteia for further details about this tragedy).  Electra was one of Agamemnon's daughters who avenged his death.  Zacharia also discusses Sophocles' rendition of the tragedy, which placed Electra more in the forefront of the story as an avenging angel of sorts caught in a never-ending cycle of death.  Lastly, Zacharia discusses Euripides' version of the tragedy, which offers the most modern and violent portrayal of the Electra character.  Dr. Zacharia closes with a parting word about how the three versions of the Mycenaean Greek tragedy have been re-interpreted by playwrights and authors over the centuries.  Frank Miller's tragic Elektra is derived mostly from Euripides' characterization of the Greek heroine.

Inside the DVD case, be sure to check out the bonus comic book as well.  It provides some background information to flesh out the interval between Elektra's death in Daredevil and her re-emergence as an assassin-for-hire in Elektra.  The comic book ends with Elektra's latest assignment to kill DeMarco, her victim in the film's opening action sequence.

Lastly, there is a limited time rebate coupon ($10 off!) applicable for various Fox DVD titles (Dodgeball, The Day After Tomorrow, I Robot, Man on Fire, and AVP).

Summary:

"Your second life's never really like your first, is it?"

Elektra keeps coming back, doesn't she?  Fans of the original Elektra film will find much to enjoy among the bonus features in this special DVD edition, although the film is essentially unchanged.  Given a second life for this "director's cut" DVD, perhaps this super-heroine film will find a wider audience.  Make Mine Marvel!
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