Batman Begins

'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

Laura's Review: A-

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.

Robin's Review: B