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Batman Begins

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/18/05 21:28:03

"Pardon me, while I go into fanboy shock here..."
5 stars (Awesome)

There has never been a Batman movie like “Batman Begins.” Ever.

They’ve come close, of course - Tim Burton’s “Batman” got the darkness and the grit down right; the animated “Mask of the Phantasm” delivered a solid origin tale mixed with a nifty take on character psychology. But even those films left in their share of the absurd, the outlandish, the cartoony. Now comes “Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) and written by Nolan and David S. Goyer (the “Blade” series), which goes one step further: it takes the Batman legend and drops it squarely in the real world. This most believable of superheroes is finally given a movie world where his very realness can be heightened, free of comic book exaggeration. This is not a comic book movie. This is a plain old action adventure, straight up, no twist.

The result is something that many are labeling the greatest superhero movie ever made. In all honesty, it’s simply too early to be making those kinds of calls (let the movie sink in before you start with the knee-jerk praise), but, also in all honesty, it does show the potential to make the short list.

Now, some of you may be scoffing at my calling Bats the “most believable of superheroes.” Perhaps the famous rogues’ gallery, including such none-too-believable characters as the Joker, the Riddler, Two-Face, and the Penguin, has clouded your thinking. But while he fights villains so exaggerated that Dick Tracy’s nemeses seem downright ordinary by comparison, he himself is a regular guy, little more than Zorro with a pointy cowl. Sure, there’s the whole outlandish “playboy millionaire” side to Bruce Wayne, but unlike aliens from Krypton or radioactive spiders, this guy has an origin tale that’s closest to our own reality.

Where all previous movie and television incarnations of Batman got stuck, then, is in handling the villains - and therefore the stories’ universes. No matter how seriously the better movies and shows handled things, there was still a matter of absurdity that had to be included. The Burton films, while nowhere near the level of the Schumacher ones, still had plenty of camp; the animated adventures of the 1990s dealt with so many oddball visitors that no matter how straight-faced it was presented, there was no escaping the fact that these were cartoons, with all the fantasy that comes with the term.

This is not to say that any of these earlier efforts suffer for their sheer comic book-ness. On the contrary - that’s what made them what they were, and they worked. Burton’s 1989 blockbuster remains a flat-out great movie, his sequel, “Batman Returns,” is greatly flawed yet highly inspired and entertaining, and the animated TV series and its movie spin-offs remain perhaps the definitive adaptation of the character’s mythology. And as pure self-aware comedy, you can’t go wrong with the Adam West era.

But now we have something so completely different. This Batman is, well, for real. Grown-up. Not merely in the not-for-kids sense (although with its dark themes and truly frightening imagery, it’s a film whose PG-13 rating should be fully noted by parents), but in the sense that its makers have decided to look for the most intelligent, mature way of tackling this mythical character. Say goodbye to Batman’s pulp comic origins; “Begins” may include a smidge of over-the-top here and there, but it’s set on giving such silliness as much believability as possible.

Let’s begin (where else?) at the beginning. The movie’s first hour is a series of tightly wound script pieces, intertwined through intricately placed flashbacks, in which we learn that a confused, overwhelmed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), still reeling from the murder of his parents when he was a child, has fled Gotham City and disappeared into the world. He finally comes under the tutelage of the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), an agent of the even more mysterious Ra’s al-Ghoul (Ken Watanabe). In al-Ghoul’s mountaintop fortress, Wayne is taught the ways of the League of Shadows, an elite ninja squad and generally a group of guys you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

Ducard becomes a father figure of sorts to Bruce, teaching him to conquer his fear, put aside his guilt, and kick major ass. But their ideals soon clash, with Bruce believing the citizens of Gotham, now a wasteland of poverty and corruption, can be saved, while Ducard and al-Ghoul feel the only way to save them is to wipe them all out.

Which is Bruce’s cue to skip out and return home, where, with the help of trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and, later, industrious gadget master Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), he suits up as Batman, ready to take down Gotham crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson).

If it seems I’ve explained too much of the plot, rest assured that I have not. The movie’s first hour is an intricate web of backstory and character study, with pieces of Bruce’s past getting revealed bit by bit, falling into place like a complex jigsaw puzzle. More than any other story told outside of the comics themselves, “Begins” offers a detailed examination of what motivates a man to become a costumed vigilante.

And that’s just fine, of course, but I find myself in awe of just how cleverly Nolan and Goyer constructed this origin. You see, most superhero origin movies (again, we recall “Superman” and “Spider-Man”) find themselves essentially split in two: the first half details how our hero became our hero, the second half introducing the actual plot, which is always based on a threat delivered by the film’s key villain that poses the first chance at action for the title character.

Here, however, things refuse to be so simple. The major threat and the key villain - namely, the psychotic Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), aka The Scarecrow, plans to dump his fear toxin into Gotham’s water supply - manage to intertwine with the origin itself. There’s some overlapping in the plotlines, with Crane working for Falcone, while up-and-coming assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) working to end their corruption. Rachel, we learn early on, is a childhood friend of Bruce’s, grown up into a potential love interest of sorts, as well as a key player in his first awkward steps into Batmanhood. (When Bruce realizes he must play up the drunken idiot rich boy angle to keep suspicion off him as Batman, he does so knowing it will drive Rachel away. The lonely life of a caped crusader…)

It’s also worth mentioning that unlike the past three Batman movies, “Begins” offers a massive cast and a double-header of villainy that doesn’t bog things down. The bad guy paring of Penguin/Catwoman, Two-Face/Riddler, and Mr. Freeze/Poison Ivy always felt too random too truly work, the screenwriters never truly sure how to combine such disparate characters into a usable storyline. Here, however, the trio of Falcone, Scarecrow, and al-Ghoul (as dissimilar as any you’ll find in the rogues’ gallery) actually fit, Nolan and Goyer placing them together in such a way that it just feels, well, right. These are characters that eventually play off each other in unique and useful ways; here, there’s not a single sense of plot overcrowding.

There’s much more to praise in the script, of course, but telling would spoil things too much for you. Needless to say, the film’s final act brings back all sorts of things from the earlier scenes, and it becomes clear that instead of cheap, dumb action, Nolan and Goyer have chosen, quite wisely, to underline the action with an impressive character arc. As a result, “Begins” becomes one of the smartest comic book movies ever crafted.

It’s also pretty darn thrilling, too. The “fear” angle, aside from working as a nifty theme to use in character development, gets played up with pure glee, Nolan turning several scenes into unadulterated Horror Movie. (The Scarecrow is genuinely creepy, while Batman himself packs some extra menace here and there.)

And then there’s the action. For a movie so interested in character and emotion, “Begins” thankfully doesn’t forget to leave out the adventure, too. Many critics have complained that the fight scenes are edited in a confusing manner, shots being cut too quickly, the viewer left unaware of what’s going on. I believe this was intentional, a way of showing us the quickness and ferocity of Batman’s attacks. When you’re buddy’s getting his ass kicked by the Dark Knight, all you’re going to see is a whole lot of chaos, ending with your buddy lying there, limp and broken. Real fights - especially the sophisticated Batman kind - aren’t clean and choreographed, Nolan is telling us, but quick, confusing, and vicious. There’s no time for pretty martial arts stuff when it comes to our hero here.

Even if you don’t care for Nolan’s fight scene methodology, you’ll thrill to the movie’s final action sequence, in which Batman races to stop a subway car from… well, you’ll see. This sequence is a genuine nailbiter, spilling over with fun and suspense, and anyone telling you that Nolan doesn’t know how to handle action is either lying or wasn’t paying attention.

It would be a shame to discuss “Begins” without mentioning its cast. Here is a film filled to its legal limit with first rate actors. Bale, of course, beats them all with his remarkable multilayered turn as the title hero; watching him here reminds us how rare it is to find a smart, thoughtful performance in a comic book movie. Caine and Freeman bring their usual gravitas to their roles, while Murphy, Wilkinson, Watanabe, and Neeson fill their parts with magnificent gusto. Holmes, despite being blasted by some for being too dull here, does what she can with the film’s only underwritten part; she’s not memorable, but she’s not terrible, either. Filling out the supporting cast are such names as Mark Boone Junior, Linus Roache, Rutger Hauer (!), Richard Brake, and, in a fun cameo, Rade Serbedzija.

But my personal favorite here has to be Gary Oldman, whose take on Sgt. Jim Gordon - a rare good guy role for the actor - is lovable, warm, gruff, and endlessly winning. Oldman makes the future commissioner almost nerdish in his good-cop ways, and it becomes impossible to not root for the guy. If anyone here makes me yearn for the sequel, it’s Oldman.

Nolan was lucky to land such a cast so loaded with not just famous names, but actual talent. Seeing such dependable names in the credits is the icing on one tasty cake. They bring to life a screenplay that outs to shame most superhero efforts that came before it. And with Nolan, quickly becoming one of the best and brightest directors working today, at the helm, there is little chance for “Begins” to be anything less than fantastic.

This is everything fans have hoped a Batman movie would be - but more than that, it’s everything non-fans have wanted, too. A smart, deep, thrilling comic adventure eager to please all audiences, no matter what level of Batfan they may be. This, dear friends, is how to do it right.

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