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Daredevil – Cut Man (Review)

To celebrate the launch of Marvel’s Daredevil and the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are reviewing all thirteen episodes of the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

If Into the Ring skilfully sets its tone in the opening teaser, telling the audience everything that they need to know about Daredevil before the first roll of the opening credits, then Cut Man saves its biggest and most defining moment for the closing seven minutes of the episode. It is almost impossible to talk about Cut Man without talking about the superb action sequence that closes out the episode – a single-take piece of stunt work that sees Matt Murdock tearing through an army of Russian mobsters in a way reminiscent of Oldboy.

That sequence is jaw-dropping, and possibly the visceral highlight of the thirteen-episode season. It is a very visceral demonstration of just what Daredevil can do. The technical skill on display in that seven-minute sequence rivals anything in the big-budget blockbuster Marvel movies. It eschews the clean-cut violence of something like the (also superb) elevator fight scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier in favour of a more low-key and naturalistic vibe. Daredevil might not have the budget for monsters or armour suits, but it has a great stunt team.

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In a way, the fact that Into the Ring is defined by its opening scene and Cut Man is defined by its closing scene feels appropriate. These are the only two episodes of the first season to be scripted by Drew Goddard, before he left the production and was replaced by Steven DeKnight. As such, these two episode have a tone that feels slightly distinct and removed from the episodes following on from this point. Although there is a very clear through line running from one end of the season to the other, Into the Ring and Cut Man feel like their own little part of the season.

These two episodes tidy away the broad strokes outline of Matt Murdock’s origin, to the point where the audience knows what they need to know before the actually story can kick in. The show will return to Matt’s early years in both Stick and Nelson v. Murdock, but Into the Ring and Cut Man represent the foundations of a superhero origin that will span the season.

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The fantastic and powerful closing sequence of Cut Man has become something of a talking point in discussions of Daredevil as a show. It makes a great deal of sense; it is visceral and eye-catching. It provides a clear moment for viewers (and critics) to focus on in differentiating Daredevil from other superhero output. This is a sequence that would not work in an Iron Man or Thor film, and which would probably not be welcome in a mainstream Captain America or Spider-Man movie. It is only really possible on Netflix.

More than that, the sequence is technically superb and perfectly positioned. That long-take fight sequence stands as a highlight of the first five episodes that were released to critics. It comes near the start of the show, but not so near that it overshadows everything that follows. It makes sense that the scene should become one of the go-to questions for interviews around the production and development of the series. All of that is true without even considering the production constraints on a show like Daredevil.

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As stunt coordinator Philip J. Silvera explained, there was a lot of work involved in realising the sequence:

Well it was tight, because yeah a good amount of planning had to go into it but again, we had such a short amount of time to do that planning. We had maybe a few days to set up that fight. You know, most feature films would get weeks to rehearse something like this. Even the remake of Oldboy probably had at least a couple weeks to plan this. We had literally days. I felt like the New York stunt community stepped up in a big way. To me, it’s going to be a highlight of the show.

The finished product is professional and superb; it doesn’t look rushed or forced or clumsy.

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There is an incredible amount of technical skill on display. The stunt team do amazing work moving in rhythm and in time; there are a lot of beats to memorise, and those beats are all chained together to form a long interlocking sequence. If anybody did miss a step in the final take, everybody else improvised around it quite smoothly. It is clear, it is well staged; it is effective. It ebbs and flows in a way that feels decidedly more naturalistic than most on-screen fist fights, with characters pausing at points to pick themselves up off the floor.

Director Phil Abraham does a stunning job at weaving the camera into and out of the scene. The hallway is laid out quite clearly and effectively; the audience is introduced to the geography of the area before Matt arrives in the scene. However, the camera is not stationary during the brawl. Abraham pushes the camera through the combatants, moving from one end of the hallway to another in the middle of what is already a rather bustling stunt scene. It flows elegantly, and it is a credit to all involved.

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Producer Steven DeKnight has explicitly acknowledged that the scene was written to evoke the iconic sequence from Oldboy, among other Asian action films:

Yeah, we were very much influenced by Oldboy and The Raid and The Raid 2. It’s funny when we were designing that sequence, beautifully written by Drew Goddard, one of the things I told the set designer and the stunt coordinator and the director, Phil Abraham, was that we wanted to go for that Oldboy feel.

This is a very logical approach to a major fight sequence in a show like Daredevil. Not only does it look impressive, but it reiterates the themes of the script.

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The brawl is exhausting. It lasts a full seven minutes, but the combatants are constantly knocking each other down and climbing back to their feet. There are no convenient one-hit knock-outs. Instead, there are lots of heavy punching and drop-kicking. Occasionally, combatants slowly pulls themselves up to the feet just so one of them can get knocked down again. Both Matt and the mobsters take a heavy beating; even the guy hit on the head with a safe at the start of the fight tries to get his knocks in.

Matt ends the fight so exhausted that he follows through on his swing by falling through a doorway into one of the adjoining rooms. It might be an effective way for the stunt team to make a nice swap between actor Charlie Cox and his stunt double right before Matt pulls up the black mask to reveal his face, but it is also indicative of the fight scene as a whole. This is messy and long and drawn out. When Captain America and Thor and Spider-Man hit people, they tend to stay down; that is not how this works. It might be a shared universe, but this is different world.

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The brutal nature of the fight underscores some of Goddard’s key themes in both Into the Ring and Cut Man. Life is rough; people get hurt. However, sometimes endurance is the key. As Matt explained about his father in Into the Ring, there is some pride in never getting knocked out. “Sometimes, when you get knocked down, you can still win,” Jack Murdock tells his son. Given that Cut Man opens with Matt in a dumpster and closes with him accomplishing his goal, it seems an apt expression.

The idea of trauma echoes through Cut Man. This is most obvious in the focus on medical work throughout the episode; Claire stitches up Matt in the same way that Matt once stitched up his father. The title of the episode refers to the medic waiting the corners of the boxing ring to patch up the fighters. The theme even applies retroactively; the poster for the fight between Jack Murdock and “Crusher” Creel can still be seen hanging in Fogwell’s Gym at the end of Into the Ring, a constant reminder of the death of Jack Murdock as revealed in Cut Man.

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It even resonates in the episode’s subplot that finds Foggy and Karen adventuring through Hell’s Kitchen late at night. In a moment of honesty, Karen confesses to Foggy that she is haunted by the violence committed upon her. “I can’t get Danny’s blood out of the carpet,” she admits. “It’s like somebody spilled a wine bottle and it just won’t…” She adds, “A man broke into my apartment and tried to kill me. He dented the wall where he bashed my head into it.” These are physical representations of past trauma – visible scarred tissue left upon the world.

Trauma is a recurring metaphor in the first season of Daredevil, although it is arguably more pronounced in Goddard’s scripts than in those credited to DeKnight. Goddard presents Matt as a character wounded and trapped by the violence in his own past. This trauma is specifically rooted in Matt’s relationship with his father. Goddard and DeKnight streamline this a bit. In the comic book, Matt Murdock was bullied by other kids as a child; they gave him the ironic nickname “Daredevil”, which he took as a stubborn badge of honour.

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These bullies were such a stock a part of the character’s origin that Mark Waid even wrote one of them into his successful run on the title. Goddard notably avoids writing the bullies into Matt’s history; Matt takes on the name “Daredevil” from a news headline rather than any part of his childhood. Matt’s anger and violence are rooted solely in the fate of Jack Murdock. The abduction of the child at the end of Into the Ring resonated with Matt because he empathises with the kid; no young boy should have to watch his father beaten in front of him, like Matt did.

These are all elements that remain in play for the rest of the season, but they will not be quite as pronounced as they are in these episodes. Karen Page’s central character arc over the series focuses on her refusal to let herself be dismissed as a victim; Matt is beaten to a bloody in Speak of the Devil, but refuses to stay down. These ideas remain part of the DNA of Daredevil, as they should, but Steven DeKnight does not quite foreground them in the same way that Goddard does.

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At the same time, Cut Man also hints at what will become a bigger theme in the episodes ahead. Desperate to find the kidnapped child, Matt brutally tortures a Russian mobster. Torture is one of those thematic elements that needs to be deployed with a great deal of care; it is far too easy to present such brutality as necessary or righteous. Indeed, for all that Cut Man uses torture to suggest that Matt is a little unbalanced and uncertain, it does seem that Claire cooperates (and even encourages) his torture just a little bit too readily.

There is a sense that Matt might not be as purely heroic as he would like. There is – as he suggested in Into the Ring – a piece of “the devil” in him. “I need you to know why I’m hurting you,” he warns the goon. “It’s not just the boy. I’m doing this because I enjoy it.” Although Claire immediately insists that he must be lying, she does later question her assessment here. Matt seems curiously indifferent to the possibility of murdering the thug; he drops a fire extinguisher on his head and only double-checks that he is alive in the dumpster after Claire asks.

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Indeed, Cut Man suggests that Matt is at least partially responsible for the situation in which he finds himself at the start of the episode. He recalls rushing right into a rescue attempt after the boy’s abduction. “I thought I was being smart how fast I found them,” he admits to Claire. “I walked right into it.” It becomes something of a recurring pattern for Matt; a tendency to jump right into the fray without pausing to think it through. It is more than mere recklessness; it is arrogance.

However, it is clear that Matt does do some good. For all that Daredevil suggests that Matt is defined by his blindness – metaphorically as much as (if not more than) literally – the show also stresses his enhanced hearing. More than any other sense, Matt’s over-developed hearing is emphasised and explored over the course of the first season. This might be budget constraints and the nature of the medium, but the first season of Daredevil draws a lot of attention to the fact that Matt can hears things that nobody else will acknowledge.

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“Scream all you want,” Turk teased his abductees in the teaser to Into the Ring. “Go on, scream load. Nobody gives a sh!t out here.” The composition of the shot proves Turk wrong; Matt hears the scream and acts upon it. In Cut Man, Matt wonders why Claire is risking everything to help him. She recalls the story of a young woman assaulted in a car park. “She said she screamed and screamed… and some man in a black mask heard her.” As blind as Matt can be, he is also the person who hears (and responds to) a city in dire need.

This is a darker and grittier – and seeder – side of the shared Marvel universe than is typical seen. In many respects, the first season of Daredevil owes a very clear debt to Christopher Nolan’s work with Batman. The series does not have the unique visual style or clarity of focus that defines Nolan’s work, but the aesthetic and the themes seem inspired by those blockbuster films. There is nothing wrong with this. Man of Steel suffered when it tried to emulate The Dark Knight because Superman is not best suited to this approach; Daredevil fits more comfortably.

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It is hard to shake this sense of overlap when Charlie Cox drops his voice an octave while in costume and makes generic shouty demands like “where is he?” to a terrified goon. It is to the credit of Daredevil that it owns many of these comparisons – that it treats Nolan’s work as an influence in the same way that it treats seventies crime dramas or even contemporary prestige television as an inspiration for what it does and how it does it. Into the Ring even introduced its central vigilante alter ego in a fight at the docks, evoking a key scene from Batman Begins.

That said, there is perhaps something a little too generic about the mobster villains who occupy the first stretch of the first season. Every character in every position from every perspective seems to refer to them as “the Russians”, and the show works really hard to present the Russians as a more visceral threat than the mobsters they replaced. We are told that they “took over when the Italians pulled out”, and it seems like Daredevil is almost nostalgic for some romanticised version of organised crime.

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The decision to open by setting Daredevil against the Russians makes a great deal of sense; they are the most mundane and generic of the sinister cabal of evil who have taken root in Hell’s Kitchen. On the other hand, it does make their involvement with the enterprise seem rather weird. Leland Owlsley brings lots money, while Nobu appears to have an army of ninjas, and Gou has money and drugs. What do a bunch of street-tough Russians bring to the game that could not be outsourced? How do these guys end up sitting at this particular table in the first place?

Later episodes suggest that the Russians were a transitional concern in this new crime landscape, but it still seems little weird. Later episodes of the show are more ready and willing to engage with the mystical and surreal elements of the world of Daredevil, making it frustrating that the season spends more than a third of its runtime focusing on cardboard cut-out stereotypes. While Nolan’s Batman films had no shortage of generic mobsters, they were at least interesting. Eric Roberts gave his best performance of the decade in The Dark Knight.

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It is interesting how Daredevil deals with the television format. After all, the release model for Daredevil is radically different from most conventional television. Given that the release pattern of these Netflix shows invites the viewer to set their own pace of watching the show, there is an argument that it makes the classic model of the television episode largely redundant. According to this argument, the viewer is not really watching a thirteen-episode series so much as thirteen-hour movie with suggested break points.

Daredevil does form a single story told over the stretch of the season. It is a thirteen-episode origin story; after all, it culminates in an episode titled Daredevil. At the same time, each of those thirteen units of story are distinct and fully formed of themselves. Those thirteen episodes each have a key point and structure. To pick the most obvious example, Stick is pretty heavily divorced from everything happening around it. However, even episodes like Rabbit in a Snowstorm, Cut Man and Shadows in the Glass have their own key points and objectives.

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Cut Man is a very distinct unit of story. It fits together with the rest of the season, but it tells its own distinct tale. Matt sets out to rescue a young boy; he eventually succeeds. Along the way, he meets Claire; we flash back to the death of his father; Foggy convinces Karen that life is worth living. Each of those threads concludes within the episode. They might build to more threads in later episodes, but each mini character is concluded in the fifty-odd minutes allotted.

In fact, perhaps the most unsatisfying aspect of Cut Man is a result of this structure. The subplot involving Foggy and Karen feels a little awkward. Its purpose is clear; it exists to convince the viewer that Hell’s Kitchen is not beyond saving and to explain that Karen is working through the trauma of what happened in Into the Ring. However, it feels like a distraction from the more interesting threads in the episode. It feels like Cut Man might work better if it just focused attention on Matt himself.

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While Deborah Ann Woll does great work as Karen, Elden Henson is the weak link in the ensemble when given the role of plucky comic relief. Henson is quite okay when it comes to the dramatic subject matter of episodes like Nelson v. Murdock, but he has tendency to play towards the gallery when stuck in a jokey role. His endearing comedy sidekick schtick feels just a little bit too self-aware and staged, particularly in contrast to the grounded tone of the show around him. It might work better if Henson dialled himself back a little bit.

Still, these are minor complaints. Cut Man is a great piece of work that really fleshes out a lot of what was suggested in Into the Ring. It is a solid foundation for the show ahead.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Daredevil:

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2 Responses

  1. I, like many people I gather, was really impressed by the fight scene at the end of this episode.

    I didn’t fully realize why until a couple of days later, when I read this Cracked.com article http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-signs-hollywood-action-movie-stars-are-going-extinct/, specifically # 3 – “American Editing Has Made Fight Choreography Impossible To See.”

    Yep. And I absolutely hate it. It’s made the action sequences in modern movies (Bourne onwards) boring and stale for me, in contrast to the style in the old Indiana Jones or Die Hard movies, where the scenes were simpler and less sophisticated but you could actually see what was happening and feel every punch. Daredevil gets major props from me for finally breaking away from that new stuff.

    • The stunt work and choreography is striking, to the point where it is easy to take it all for granted. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment, and one of the highlights of the show.

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