Batman Begins

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/15/05 00:11:33

"By far the best Batman film to date."
5 stars (Awesome)

“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” In “Batman,” the arch-villain The Joker asked that question about everyone’s favorite nocturnal crime-fighter and his astounding array of gadgets, but it is a question that fanboys have been posing ever since the character made his debut in the comic books in 1939. Oh sure, we know the basic details of how billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne was inspired to become a costumed vigilante–to avenge the death of his parents at the hands of a street thug when he was a child–but they never really explained how he developed his skills or how he acquired such iconic tools as the Batmobile and his inimitable costume. With “Batman Begins,” director Christopher Nolan (best known for his 2000 mindbender “Memento”) attempts to pull off two seemingly insurmountable challenges–to fill in all of those blanks surrounding the origins of the character and, perhaps more difficult, single-handedly jump-start a franchise that all but died in a haze of bad puns, overblown effects and superhero outfits festooned with nipples and codpieces. Amazingly, he pulls it out of the bag and comes up with a work that is not only arguably the best “Batman” film but one of the best superhero movies to date.

Any fears that this film will continue the jokey downward slope of “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin” are pretty much allayed in the opening scenes in which we see Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) waking up in a stately prison cell about a zillion miles away from the confines of Gotham City. In an interesting narrative gambit of mixing flashbacks with the current timeline, we learn that Bruce has fled all that he knows to travel the world in an effort to get to know the criminal mind so that he may be able to destroy it. He catches the eye of Ducard (Liam Neeson, apparently hell-bent on playing every mentor part that comes down the pike), a recruiter for the League of Shadows, a fearsome ninja vigilante group led by the all-powerful Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Ducard trains Bruce in the deadly art of combat in the hopes that he will one day lead the army in an effort to thwart the forces of evil by any means necessary. When it finally dawns on Bruce that this is simply brutal vigilantism, he refuses and escapes–killing Ra’s but saving Ducard in the process.

Returning home to Gotham City after an absence of years, with faithful manservant Alfred (Michael Caine) at his side, Bruce discovers that his birthplace has all but submitted to crime and brutality. The streets are controlled by ruthless crime boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) seem to be the only honest people in their professions remaining. On the business side of things, the once-philanthropic Wayne Industries is now controlled by the equally ruthless CEO Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer) and is more concerned with a public offering than in doing right. Oh yeah, there is also psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who is working with Falcone and an unknown third party on some secret evil plan and also likes to don a mask to appear as his alter-ego The Scarecrow–who, with the aid of a nerve gas, causes his victims to be driven mad by their own greatest fears.

To aid in bringing all the bad guys to justice, Bruce decides to put Ducard’s admonition that “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents” to the test by assembling an alter-go of his own. To this end, he is aided by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a tech whiz in Wayne Industries Applied Sciences division who just happens to have plenty of fully-functional hardware on hand that was never put out on the market–among them are grappling guns, flexible military-grade battle armor that can withstand most anything that can be thrown at it and, best of all, an all-terrain automobile that can travel at breakneck speeds, stop on a dime, blow things up real good and, most importantly, inspire one of the film’s best lines. (“Does it come in black?”) With the help of these gadgets, Batman gets the upper-hand on Falcone and the Scarecrow, only to discover both the identity of the real bad guy in charge and the full dimensions of his diabolical plan to destroy Gotham City once and for all.

It sounds like a typical “Batman” adventure but while the previous films in the series were overtly comic-book in nature, the difference with “Batman Begins” is that it seems as if Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer have actually taken the time to create a familiar world (possibly more familiar to some viewers than others since many of the exteriors were shot in downtown Chicago) and then tried to figure out a plausible way of working its super heroes and villains into the mix. One trick that Nolan deploys is to use the more fantastical elements sparingly for the first half of the film–Bale doesn’t even appear in the Batman suit until over an hour into the film–in order to build up the sense of realism. Then, when we have more or less accepted the film on a realistic level, that is when he springs the big action sequences–fires, explosions, enormous brawls and a dizzying high-speed chase through Lower Wack–I mean, the streets of Gotham.

Another reason that the film works is the generally inspired casting choices made by Nolan. Although I could have lived without Neeson and Freeman, who have played parts similar to their roles here too many times to count, the rest of the selections are intriguingly off-kilter. Bale, doing a kinder, gentler riff on Patrick Bateman, another psychologically disturbed playboy that he played in “American Psycho,” is good enough in the dramatic scenes to make us buy that his character would dress up in a suit in an effort to seek out justice and convincing enough in the fight scenes to makes us believe that he would survive such clashes. Oldman, who might have made once played a standard-issue scenery-chewing villain in a typical “Batman” film, is effectively low-key and restrained as Lt. Gordon and Holmes is just fine as the damsel in distress. The only actors who don’t really come off that well are Wilkinson and Murphy, mostly because they are playing the more overtly cartoonish characters and they sometimes clash jarringly with the more realistic aspects.

Don’t think for a minute, however, that “Batman Begins” is just a moody character piece and nothing more. Working for the first time on a blockbuster scale, Nolan, as Tim Burton and Ang Lee did before him with their superhero efforts, demonstrates a valuable skill for creating large-scale action sequences that don’t feel like the run-of-the-mill set-pieces that we have come to get used to in such big-budget epics. Nolan uses a lot of mystery in his scenes–Batman sensibly spends a good portion of his time in the shadows and what we don’t see of him is almost as important as what we do see. The aforementioned car chase is an impressive enough showpiece to go on the short list of great chase scenes in recent years along with”The Matrix Reloaded,” “Ronin” and “The Bourne Identity.” The only action scene that doesn’t quote come off, unfortunately, is the climactic mano-a-mano showdown with the chief baddie, mostly because it unfortunately reminds us of a similar scene in “Spider-Man 2.”

Although I still have a soft spot in my heart for the two Tim Burton-Michael Keaton “Batman” films (especially “Batman Returns,” easily the strangest and most virulently anti-blockbuster tentpole film of its time), “Batman Begins” is easily the best of the bunch–it is always exciting, frequently amusing (almost ever line that Michael Caine delivers is gold) and in its best parts, it has the kind of epic grandeur and dramatic heft that attracts many readers to the original comics and which are usually the first things dropped when they are brought to the screen. It is so good, in fact, that when Nolan wraps things up with an obvious set-up for a sequel, I didn’t even really mind the crassness of the move. Hell, if it can be done with the same level of taste and grace of “Batman Begins,” then the sooner it comes, the better.

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