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Who said supergirls just wanna have fun?

January 14, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Director Rob Bowman's Elektra doesn't have a complex. She has disorders. She's an obsessive-compulsive workaholic celibate with daddy issues. (Not to be confused with a daddy "fixation," which might inspire more freewheeling behavior). She's a Tri-Delt, in other words. If she weren't a ninja assassin she'd work in publishing and cry after sex.

What is it about comic book supergirls and big-budget action heroines that compels screenwriters and directors to condemn them to lives of neurotic monasticism? Would it kill a tough girl to crack a smile or eat a Twinkie or make a pass once in a while? Does she have to be a squinty jerk with intimacy issues in order to be considered super? These and other questions are raised, but never answered, by "Elektra," who, for an ultraviolent "nimbo" (that's ninja bimbo, for the uninitiated) who does her salaried killing in a red satin teddy and stiletto heels, is no fun at all.

Originally created by legendary Marvel Comics writer Frank Miller in 1980, the comic book Elektra (a distant but simpatico relation to the Hellenic myth, presumably) is the daughter of a Greek ambassador and his unfaithful wife, Christina. She grows up to become Daredevil's lover, dies, and is brought back to life in her own lurid limited series.

In the comic, terrorists murder her beloved father, and only remaining parent, and Elektra turns to a life of salaried crime. Far be it from Fox, though, to promote such cynicism and sluttishness in what it hopes will be a major new franchise starring a squeaky-clean Jennifer Garner. Perhaps in an effort to clean up the role (she's a killer, OK, but other than that she's a nun), Bowman and screenwriters Zak Penn and Stuart Zicherman & Raven Metzner have decided to rehabilitate Elektra's mom's checkered reputation: Instead of being shot in half while dozing placid and pregnant on a Greek beach, she's killed during her noonday nap in a Greek-themed American mansion. The deed is done by a beastly representative of the Hand, an evil ninja syndicate, and young Elektra discovers the body and is forever haunted by the image of her saintly, martyred mom. Turning the rage inward in the manner of anorexics worldwide, she gives herself over to exercise, OCD and loneliness.

Why Fox has taken a character named Elektra and given her a mommy fixation is anybody's guess. As for daddy, he's not the lovable parent of the book but a tyrannical sports-dad who repeatedly appears onscreen in flashback just to scream at her from the side of the pool. Presumably, he's still among the living, though obviously estranged.

Miller's Elektra lived in a world of greed and near-total corruption. But Bowman's Elektra inhabits the same old dualistic Bushworld we keep hearing about in White House news conferences: "Since time began," a voice informs us at the start of the movie, "a war has been waged in the shadows between the forces of good and evil." But only good has decent representation. Yes, Elektra has an agent -- the weaselly McCabe (Colin Cunningham), who says things like, "You're crashing on me, baby. I said you were crashing on me and you're crashing on me." This sort of thing makes him either one of the best or the worst things about "Elektra" -- which patently refuses to give itself over to gaudy melodrama but occasionally settles on low-key camp.

Bowman lets his ghostly ninja keep the get-up depicted in the book (and omitted in "Daredevil"), but he bleeds as much of the Miller darkness from the story as he can. The movie is not so much tenebrous as it is adolescently surly. Despite an introductory sequence in which Elektra dispatches a man patiently awaiting death in front of a roaring fire, she spends much of the movie's first half brooding, counting and arranging things just so. (You half expect her to jog to Joni Mitchell, eat an apple and throw it up.) Her performance is so clenched, steely and bloodless I found myself agreeing with her agent's rather crassly suggested method of relaxation.

She never takes his advice, of course, though she does thaw to room temperature upon meeting Mark (Goran Visnjic) and Abby Miller (Kirsten Prout), a father and daughter living on a remote island. All it takes is one not-so-friendly dinner with the gifted teenager and her handsome dad (who spends most of the movie kicking dirt on the sidelines) for Elektra's maternal instincts to come alive. This bovine vision of female comic book heroism is especially dispiriting considering Garner's prior experience in the genre. As Sydney, on ABC's spy series "Alias," Garner fights badness, wears good outfits and enjoys a personality and a love life all at the same time.

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