Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Batman Begins / ***½ (PG-13)

Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale
Alfred: Michael Caine
Henri Ducard: Liam Neeson
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman
Lt. Gordon: Gary Oldman
Rachel Dawes: Katie Holmes
Carmine Falcone: Tom Wilkinson
Earle: Rutger Hauer
Ra’s Al Ghul: Ken Watanabe

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Nolan and David S. Goyer. Based on characters created by Bob Kane. Running time: 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements).

Sometimes this self-imposed role as a critic gets the best of me while I’m watching a movie. Not very often, but sometimes I lose that idealism of someone who is just going to the movies to see something he really wants to enjoy. Sometimes instead of just watching a movie I sit there and think about everything in it and how I would like to approach it when I’m writing about it later. In fact I usually have two heads about me when I’m watching movies lately -- the film fanatic and the film critic.

I never really got swept away from my own reality while watching Batman Begins like I used to back when Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989. Of course, I never really thought about any of the movies I watched and enjoyed back then. Perhaps one reason I watched this new beginning for my favorite comic book icon with such staunch seriousness is because this Batman was approached with so much more realism than the half-baked child-like fantasies that made up those four goofy Batman visions in the ’90’s. I actually spent last week watching those four films, which become even sillier with age, because I have this collector’s disease that forces me to own them. Yes, even the nightmare debacle that is Batman & Robin. Batman Begins is a breath of fresh air compared to those earlier films; easily the best Batman film Warner Bros. has produced, and one of the best superhero films I’ve seen.

The only other thing those 90’s Batman films got right was the character of Bruce Wayne’s butler and faithful confidant, Alfred Pennyworth (actually the first two, helmed by Burton, got the gothic mood right as well). This time all the characters are spot on and Alfred, played with both gravity and a lighter side by Michael Caine (Secondhand Lions) is even better. He is the perfect reality check for Bruce.

Alfred: “This ‘disguise’ is also designed to protect those close to you?”

Bruce: “Thinking about Rachel?”

Alfred: “Actually, I was thinking about myself.”

Although this is much more reality based it is Bruce himself who points out in the film that “Anyone who dresses up like a bat, clearly has issues.” But I get ahead of myself…

I had concerns when I first saw the size of the cast. Despite the fact that it was filled with some of film’s greatest acting talents -- Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe -- the large cast list gave the impression that the filmmakers would be stretching themselves thin on story with a heavy focus only the villains and supporting cast rather than the title character, much like the previous films. But these fears were unwarranted. The presence of all these major acting talents is never forced upon the story. For the most part the supporting characters are understated. These masters of their craft simply come in and do the job their characters must to further the story without drawing undue attention from the story at hand. This film is quite sharp in its focus of telling the story of the man Bruce Wayne, and how and why he creates this mythic alter ego the Batman.

The movie starts off in a Chinese prison camp where we meet a ragged Bruce Wayne, who is filled with rage and has a reputation of being one prisoner you just don’t mess with. After a fight with six other inmates, Bruce is dragged away by the guards for protection.

“I don’t need protection,” Bruce says.

“Not for you, for them.”

A mysterious character named Ducard (Neeson, Kingdom of Heaven) visits Bruce on the day before his release from the prison claiming to work for a martial arts sensei named Ra’s Al Ghul as part of his justice seeking League of Shadows. He challenges Bruce to join this team of elite warriors to help purge his rage and put his skills to good use. Upon his final test with this League of Shadows, Bruce finds his own moral standards do not match up with the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which these warriors seek to pursue their “justice.” There is a falling out.

Throughout these opening passages the audience is treated to lengthy flashbacks of Bruce’s youth that explain where his rage and fears come from and how they relate to each other. Unlike past films, and most comic book depictions for that matter, the murder of Bruce’s parents in one of Gotham City’s crime ridden back alleys at the hand of a petty thief, Joe Chill, is depicted in great detail. Although I was disappointed the nod to Zorro was dropped as a primary influence in the creation of Batman, I liked the way the events that lead up to the murder of his parents right before his eyes made their fate weigh even heavier on Bruce’s shoulders than in versions that just use the murder alone as the motivation behind Bruce’s sense of justice.

Bruce returns to Gotham for the first time with a definitive direction in which to pursue his own beliefs. He enlists Alfred before their plane even touches down and quickly proceeds to build up the playboy image of Bruce Wayne. This creates some friction with his childhood girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Holmes, Pieces of April), who is the Assistant DA for this city that has come almost entirely under the control of a crime lord name Carmine Falcone (Wilkinson, In the Bedroom). He also finds he has lost control over his own Wayne Enterprises to the company’s CEO (Hauer, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), but enlists former board member Lucius Fox (Freeman, Dreamcatcher) to help him re-establish his worth in the company and establish his arsenal as Batman. As for Batman, he finds one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops in Jim Gordon (Oldman, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), who is very wary of using a vigilante’s methods to secure peace. Unfortunately for Gordon’s sensibilities, a madman known as the Scarecrow (Murphy, 28 Days Later) threatens the city with a fear-inducing drug that only Batman seems to understand.

To go further into the plot would be pointless, as it would sound like a comic book plot, but is presented here as something more important, something of a crusade. More detail might also reveal a very large secret, and since I’ve credited every other major character with a performer, perhaps I should mention the casting of British-born actor Christian Bale (Reign of Fire) as the caped crusader himself. Bale is the first perfect casting of the character. He is able to encompass every aspect of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. His very presence is dark and brooding, but he also has the looks and pompous nature to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes with Bruce’s feigned playboy persona. George Clooney was the only past Wayne who I could see that side of the character from. Val Kilmer certainly was pompous, but his whole performance seemed to be posturing. And Michael Keaton was too much the everyman to be the silver-spooned Wayne.

Of course, all the previous Batmen were pretty much the same in the suit, but in this film Bruce doesn’t even don the cape and cowl until an hour (maybe longer) into it. And this time around director Christopher Nolan (Memento) wisely uses editing to speed up the fight sequences. If the new costume is as restrictive as the previous uniforms, it doesn’t show during the fast paced fight scenes.

The primary focus of this new Batman though, seems to be how could any of this actually work. Jack Nicholson’s Joker asks in Burton’s Batman, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” Here there is an answer. Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer (Blade series) are adamant about making the Batman mythos logically possible. The storytellers meticulously layout where both Batman’s knowledge and gadgets come from. As Bruce grills Lucius on the functionality of the body armor that will become the Batsuit in the underground Wayne Enterprise Technology Development Division, Lucius wryly asks, “Why are you interested in this?”

“I wanted to borrow it.”

“What for?”



“Yeah. You know, cave diving.”

“Just how many armed assailants are you planning on meeting in these caves?”

It is no surprise that Lucius is eventually let in on the Batman secret here. There is no way Bruce could pull off everything he needs to be Batman without him.

For all its attention to the business of being Batman, to call the movie entirely realistic would be an error. This is a fantasy. Hell, one of the villains wears a mask that makes him look like a scarecrow, not to mention the title character’s choice of apparel. Production designer Nathan Crowley (Insomnia) retains some of the fantasy flavor of Gotham City itself for the purpose of keeping the elevated dramatic quality of a superhero environment. The most notable exaggeration on reality is the public elevated train that plays a large role in the story’s climax. This train has just a flavor in its scope, size and design of Anton Furst’s vision of Burton’s Batman, but Nolan wisely leaves most of the film opened up to location settings rather than the dark studio sets of the previous films.

I don’t really know why I didn’t get swept away by this production I obviously greatly admired. Perhaps the collaborated score by James Newton Howard (Collateral) and Hans Zimmer (King Arthur) offered no anthem to march me into that fantasy world of the movies, but even with the reserved observational post of a critic, I was impressed by this understanding effort to bring to life an American icon, and a hero I have always worshiped. In fact, I can’t wait to see it again, no doubt to be swept away when I’m not worrying about my review to write.

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