Jan 19, 2005 at 12:00 am

Let’s play armchair casting for a second: Who do you think of when you hear the words “kinky superheroine”? Angelina Jolie? Maybe Maggie Gyllenhaal, if you’re a little more adventurous? Halle Berry, if you’re being sarcastic? Chances are no one’s screaming the name of Jennifer Garner. Despite her butt-kicking prowess on TV’s Alias every week, Garner’s too “aw-shucks,” too West Virginia, too Jay Leno-safe to sport the Frederick’s of Hollywood red bustier and hacked-off bangs required to play Elektra, one of Marvel comics’ more exotic, psycho-sexual revenge-istas. Yet here she is, launching her very own franchise, ready to assume the mantle of sequel queen, perennial comic convention surprise guest and fanboy spank fantasy.

So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Elektra isn’t all that bad. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that any piece of celluloid spawned from the wreckage of 2003’s Daredevil would be anything other than an unintentional laugh riot. Square, awkward, lifeless and geeky in the worst possible way, Daredevil was easily the most disposable of the recent glut of X-Men wannabes. It’s a testament to Garner — not to mention her handlers — that her girl-next-door likability and movie career were able to survive.

Director Rob Bowman seems determined to make audiences forget there was a Daredevil in the first place. From an opening prologue of red-swathed Elektra sketches (echoes of the Spiderman movies) to the dewy, naturalistic production design (a far cry from Daredevil’s chintzy-looking sets), it’s clear we’re worlds away from Affleck-ville. The story is pared down to its essentials: Brought back from the dead by her estranged mentor Stick (Terence Stamp), Elektra is a hired assassin who becomes the unlikely protector to Mark (Goran Visnjic) and Abby (Kirsten Prout), a father and daughter who are mysteriously stalked by The Hand, a sort of multiethnic collective of various and sundry tricked-out baddies.

Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, the film amounts to little more than a handful of expertly staged and shot set pieces. Bowman shows an uncanny knack for recycling the best gimmicks from Hong Kong action flicks (throwing stars, gravity-defying wire work), the Matrix movies (slo-mo bullets falling like rain), and even Kill Bill (pseudo-Asian mysticism). The downside to all the breathless action is that there’s zero emotional involvement. Garner mostly keeps her mouth shut and scrunches up her face to convey deep thought; her protégé Prout struggles to find a decent balance between sassy and just plain bratty; and love interest Visnjic has so little to do, it’s a wonder he even made the final cut. It’s hard to say whether the film will be a one-off or the beginning of an endless progression of fanboy-mandated sequels, but this much is certain: it’ll leave die-hard Garnerphiles satisfied, if not quite clamoring for second helpings.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].