'Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot.
So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts.
I must be a creature of the night.'
– Bruce Wayne, AKA Batman, Detective Comics #33
Cowriting with story creator David S. Goyer of the "Blade" series, director Christopher Nolan ("Memento," the American remake of "Insomnia") brings new elements to Bob Kane's Batman creation that make the character richer, darker and more adult than we've ever seen him before. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, "American Psycho") is not only determined to avenge the deaths of his parents, but to rescue Gotham from the League of Shadows, a group that takes it upon themselves to determine when a city is past saving. Ironically, it is a member of the League, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, "Kingdom of Heaven"), who mentors Bruce when "Batman Begins."
Last year, Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2" was roundly praised (myself included) as being one of the best, if not THE best, super hero movies. Well, if "Spider-Man 2" is the best cartoony comic book super hero movie, Nolan's "Batman Begins" is its adult, graphic novel counterpart. Here's a movie with genuine threat, realistic villains, a bat man who really flies and a batmobile that really travels at 105 mph.
Nolan takes his time laying his groundwork, first establishing the young Bruce Wayne's (Gus Lewis) first, psychologically scarring encounter with bats when the young boy falls into a well housing hundreds of the critters. His future attachment to D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes, "Abandon," "Pieces of April") is also incorporated in this scene, as Bruce and young Rachel (Emma Lockhart) are involved in a game of Finder's Keepers with a just found Indian arrowhead (a heart-shaped object and Cupid's weapon of choice). Bruce's father (Linus Roache, "Priest," "The Chronicles of Riddick") is also fleshed out as a hero of depressive times, a visionary for the common good, a philanthropist and a perhaps too-trustworthy man who leaves the running of Wayne Enterprises to 'those who know better.' The iconic murder of Batman's parents still features mom's (Sara Stewart, "The Winslow Boy") breaking strand of pearls and gunshots in an alley, but this time the setup (a fearful Bruce begs to leave an opera production of 'Die Fliedermaus') overshadows Bruce's need for revenge with an overwhelming guilt.
With the emotional background laid (fear, guilt over that fear, vengeance, and a grounded humanity from his father), Nolan goes on to fill in the physical. Bruce travels to Asia, spending time with the very criminals he wishes to eventually pursue. He's taken from a Bhutanese jail by Ducard, ostensibly because he's a Wayne, and trained in the Keysi Fighting Method, but Bruce rejects Ra's Al Ghul's (Ken Watanabe, "The Last Samurai") and his mentor's league, killing the former but saving the latter.
Back in Gotham City (so gloriously imagined it looks fresh, and beautifully run down since we last caught a glimpse), Bruce discovers he's been declared dead by Wayne Enterprises CEO Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer, "Sin City"), but his estate is intact thanks to his foresight in having left everything to loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine, "Secondhand Lions"). He applies for a job with Earle, cannily choosing the neglected Applied Sciences division, where an old friend of his dad's, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby," "Unleashed"), can act as his 'Q,' setting him up with military prototypes. With Alfred's help, Bruce sets up his Bat Man operations in a real bat cave beneath Wayne Manor (Britain’s Mentmore Towers) and sets his sights on the crime lord who has Gotham City in his pocket, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson, "In the Bedroom"), but Falcone is but a puppet in the hands of a far deadlier enemy, one whose identity is fronted in Gotham City's Narrows district's Arkham Asylum by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, "28 Days Later").
Nolan's mastery of this material goes beyond the pages of his multi-layered script. Production Design by Nathan Crowley ("Insomnia"), overseeing nine credited art directors, offers a working city of varying neighborhoods, all held together by Wayne Sr.'s monorail train, but Gotham is also a city of the world, revisited after locations which include an Icelandic Glacier and acknowledgement of world capitals. No one has ever realized such cool gadgetry before, either, because Nolan's Batman stuff actually works. Witness a Batmobile that looks like a cross between a humvee and a motorcycle which performs real jumps and actually outraced a helicopter during a chase scene filmed in Chicago's “The Loop." (The vehicle is equipped with a 5.7 liter, 350 cubic inch, 340-horsepower engine, is over 9 feet wide and 15 feet long, weights 2.5 tons and has no front axel!) The batsuit is comprised of separate pieces, allowing the man within to move his head without moving his shoulders for the first time, and features an electrocharged cape extended on skeletal wings. All 'flying' was accomplished live on the set, although CGI created bats can be 'called' via a sonic device implanted in Batman's boot (and, it must be stated, while the bat assistance is a good idea, the combination of this cloaking device and Lee Smith's quick cutting often obscure the action for the audience as well as the film's bad guys). "Batman's" most inspired effects involve a weaponized aerosol hallucinogen Dr. Crane uses which causes its victims to have pretty bad trips (he complements the drugging with his own burlap mask for a combined effect that turns him into The Scarecrow).
In what must be the most extreme case of physical self-abuse inflicted for the art of acting, Christian Bale rapidly regained the 63 lbs. lost for his last role as "The Machinist" (which he played at the emaciated weight of 121 lbs.), then put on another 20 lbs. of muscle to bulk up Batman's physique. The mouth beneath the mask is the most distinctive since Keaton's and Bale's Bat voice is strong and deep. Bale's is a serious Bat Man, whose cover antics as playboy Bruce are barely convincing, leaving hope for the tenuous thread that still ties him to Rachel. Just when you may start to think "Batman Begins" is becoming too humorless altogether, along comes Caine with his humble yet cheeky loyalty ('You can borrow the Rolls. Just bring it back with a full tank of gas.' he tells his returning Master). Caine's counterpart is Freeman, who also brings sparkling mirth to his role. Katie Holmes does a solid turn as an impassioned official willing to put her neck on the line, although her last scene with Bale comes across as a bit of a muddle, due largely to underwritten motivation.
The seriously good-looking Murphy seemed an odd casting choice for the Scarecrow, but the actor uses his large blue eyes to chilling effect and is the film's best bad guy. A close second is Wilkinson, having a ball spewing tough guy bluster, convinced that he is infallible. Perhaps one of "Batman Begins" biggest joys is the casting against type of Gary Oldman ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") as Gotham's future commissioner, Lt. James Gordon. Oldman downplays his Everyman cop, but makes his piloting of the Batmobile one of the film's biggest rushes.
Tim Burton's Batman movies were always thought of as dark, but compared to Nolan's vision they're the cartoony product of their time rather than today's more fearful worldview. "Batman Begins" is a thorough reinvention and rejuvenation of the franchise for mature audiences that should, if there is any justice, overpower "Sith" at the box office.
Tormented by the loss of his parents and his involvement in their tragic deaths, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has secretly wandered the world seeking truth and honing his physical skills to battle injustice. His father’s beloved Gotham City is being consumed by crime and corruption and Bruce returns to the fold of stately Wayne Manner. With the help of his butler, best friend and guardian, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), Bruce must shed his childhood fears if he is to become the caped crusader in “Batman Begins.”
After seeing “Batman Begins,” it seemed like a good idea to take another gander at Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.” The surprise isn’t just how much film production has matured over the intervening years, making the latest edition in the Batman saga the most complex, artistically focused of the entire series. The neat thing about “Batman Begins” is that it has evolved beyond the comic book imprint left by Burton and the rest. This is an everyman hero story where super powers don’t exist except in the mind dedicated to crime fighting and justice. (Of course, being a billionaire makes the transition from average mensch to Dark Knight a little bit easier than it would be for you or me.)
Helmer Chris Nolan has made a name for himself as a director of suspense with his films, “Memento” and the American remake of “Insomnia,” but I wasn’t prepared to see how the young filmmaker has eased indy film into the megabudget director’s seat with “Batman Begins.” Nolan, sharing script credits with David S. Goyer (of his story), holds more akin to such big-time actioners as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Spider Man” and “Star Wars” than to any of the earlier Caped Crusader franchise.
Lots takes place in the first hour of “Batman Begins” by way of explanation as we see young Bruce (Gus Lewis) wandering the grounds of Wayne Manor with his best friend, Rachel (Emma Lockhart). He falls down an old abandoned well and, before he is rescued, is swarmed by the thing the boy comes to fear most – bats! Bruce’s kind, philanthropic father, Dr. Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache) protectively shields the child from his fear, but this ends in the murder of both of Bruce’s parents.
Things get Indiana Jones-ish when grown up Bruce leaves Gotham to search the world for the knowledge and power to rid his city of the crippling crime spree. We next see the wanderer in a Bhutanese jail where he is, literally, fighting for his life against incredible odds. Things get mystical when the victor is approached by a mysterious stranger named Ducard (Liam Neeson) and invited to join a powerful vigilante group, the League of Shadows, led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Ducard becomes Bruce’s muse, teaching him all manner of martial arts and honing his skills to master your own fears to be able to manipulate fear in others.” But, the League’s commitment to “justice is balance” means they will stop at nothing, even the destruction of Gotham, to keep this balance. The breakup between Bruce and the League over this scorched earth philosophy is not pretty.
Bruce returns to Gotham to find the city in its death throes because of crime and corruption. Wayne Enterprises is in the hands of CEO Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), who is more concerned with taking the company public than helping the city in which it is based. Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel (Katie Holmes), is all grown up and Assistant DA and has earned the ire of the mob powers controlling the city. Bruce takes a job in his family-owned company’s Applied Science division and meets Lucius Fox, the company’s former CEO exiled to the bowels of the research department. This is where Bruce discovers all the gadgets that will become his tools in fighting crime and saving Gotham City.
All this takes place before you see a bat ear or a bat cape, never mind the Batmobile. The build up, while extremely entertaining, is just high-class fodder for the real adventure of “Batman Begins.” Chris Nolan and company have created a completely new inventing of the Batman saga that holds more to the original graphic novels than to any of the filmed versions since the feature length movie of the popular TV show back in 1966 (starring Adam West, who still claims to be the one, true Batman). There is the expected darkness to the production – we are talking about the Dark Knight and bats, after all – but this is carefully leavened with wry humor throughout, giving the work depth and character.
Christian Bale gives the best rendition of Bruce Wayne/Batman to grace the big screen to date. He has the poise and still-boyish looks to be convincing as the posturing playboy billionaire. But, the actor has oft proved himself, in the past, to commit physically to a role – just see Bale’s buff maniacal being in American Psycho” and his emaciated character in “The Machinist” where the actor lost 60 pounds for the role. He put that weight back on, and more, for the physically punishing role as Batman. Bale gives a charming, affable performance as Bruce Wayne in his public, playboy persona. As his crime-fighting alter ego, he is focused on his mission and will offer no quarter to his criminal quarry. Christian Bale, if he wants, can carry a new franchise.
What makes “Batman Begins” a big cut above its predecessors is the first-rate cast filling in the many supporting roles. Just look: Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Katie Holmes and Cilian Murphy. You can’t beat a full house like this, especially when the thespians give dimension to what could be stick figure characters. Caine is a charmer as Alfred. There is strength, warmth and humor about the character that shows through in his affection for Bruce.
Liam Neeson gives a kind of reversal on his Qui-Gon Jinn role in “Star Wars Episode One.” Instead of the noble Jedi of goodness and light, Neeson’s Henri Ducard is the antithesis of that character as he embraces the dark side to maintain the League’s desire for “balance.” The actor doesn’t give a carbon copy of his previous character but he does show the other side of that coin. Morgan Freeman, of course, exudes good will as Lucius Fox and, if not a stretch for the actor, is a fully 3-D character. I don’t think Freeman is incapable of a bad performance, just bad choices in film projects, sometimes. Fortunately, for us, this is not a bad project.
The rest of this wonderful supporting team also get decent shrift. Gary Oldman, one of the world’s great character actors, gives a grounded performance as police officer Jim Gordon (name sound familiar?), the only incorruptible cop in Gotham City. Tom Wilkinson has a good old time chewing scenery as crime boss Carmine Falcone. Katie Holmes does a solid job as the crime-fighting DA and love interest for Bruce. Cilian Murphy puts an oily spin on his wicked psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane, who stops at nothing to gain power. The rich casting job, down to very small roles, is a big plus for “Batman Begins.”
Techs, as expected, are cutting edge – from the Batsuit and fancy-schmancy gadgets hung upon it to a Batmobile that looks like a military juggernaut designed to go anywhere and blast big holes in the process. The special F/X are impressive, all the more when they are used in conjunction with real, live action. All the behind-the-camera work from lensing (Wally Pfister) to production design (Nathan Crowley) and costume (Lindy Hemming) is of the highest quality.
Nolan and Goyer have crafted a complex but smoothly told story that has all of the elements to please the summertime, air-conditioning seeking moviegoer. Batman Begins” has intrigue, romance, shootouts, brawls, high tech gadgets, dark humor and loads of action. It’s the best of the “Batman” movies and a thorough surprise in just how darn good it is. I give it an A-.
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