While watching “Batman Begins”, it’s best not to consider this installment in the Dark Knight’s life and times as being a part of the Burton and Schumacher (I still cringe saying that second name) Batman films. True to advance buzz, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” is an Origins Story, and one that rarely, if ever, takes its heed from the last four movies in the franchise. You could call it a prequel, but that wouldn’t exactly be correct; if it’s anything, “Batman Begins” is a “re-imagining”, basically a different version of a familiar story. And also true to rumors, Nolan has brought the Caped Crusader almost entirely down to Earth. Almost.
The first hour of “Batman Begins” doesn’t even have Batman anywhere in sight. Instead, the film opens with a disheveled and battered Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, “The Machinist”) locked up in a Chinese prison, picking fights with anyone who wants a piece of him (which, apparently, a lot of them do). Enter Ducard (Liam Neeson), a mysterious stranger who offers Bruce a chance at redemption — learn the secret arts of the League of Shadows, an ancient gathering of vigilantes, and he can become more than human — he can become legend. Bruce agrees, if only to cleanse himself of the guilt he feels over his parent’s death in a filthy alleyway back in Gotham City. (And no, it wasn’t at the hands of the Joker ala Burton’s “Batman”.)
After harsh and brutal ninja training in the mountains, Bruce bucks the final lesson of Ducard and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the League of Shadows, by refusing to kill. The disagreement ends with Bruce returning to Gotham City and Ra’s Al Ghul’s headquarters in ruins. Back in Gotham City, Bruce transforms himself into Batman, and finds allies in Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the last honest cop on the force, and crusading District Attorney and Bruce’s childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Forming an unlikely alliance, the trio battle crime lord Tom Wilkinson and the devious Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), aka the Scarecrow, who claims to be working for someone else, someone more sinister.
There’s little doubt that Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) did exactly what he set out to do — make a gritty, grounded movie about a guy that fights crime wearing a Bat costume. The very first action scene in the film, coming a brief minute or two after a flashback to Bruce’s childhood, declares early on that “Batman Begins” is no Joel Schumacher production, or even a whimsical Tim Burton film. Even Gotham City gets a facelift. This is a city we can touch, that exists, and not models created from someone’s imagination. A mixture of the old and familiar, with a little dash of futuristic thrown in, Gotham City has never looked more real, or corrupt.
The same is true for the characters. Bruce Wayne’s pain has never felt so real, especially the flashbacks to his childhood. Young Gus Lewis, who plays the 8-year old Bruce Wayne, is dead on. You never felt Bruce’s pain in Burton’s “Batman”, and it certainly never even came up in Schumacher’s versions — or if it did, it was lost in the bright colors and rubber nipples. Even “Batman Begin’s” most outlandish sequence — when Batman takes the entire Gotham City P.D. on a highly destructive citywide chase — is tempered when Alfred chastises Bruce for being a thrill seeker instead of a man in search of justice. I don’t know if Nolan or Goyer wrote this post-chase sequence, but it makes “Batman Begins” just that much more grounded.
Previous reviews have remarked on the lack of visible action choreography in “Batman Begins”. I don’t see it. Literally. And guess what? It works. This is how it’s supposed to be. When Batman first appears in costume and attacks a group of thugs at a dock, he’s a vicious, horrifying monster. In a lot of ways, most of the scenes of Batman in action looks more like a horror movie — with a dark, unseen creature literally lifting and punching and kicking goons out of frame, faster than they know what’s happening, faster than our eyes can follow. The swift, brutal, and bone-crunching action also gives Batman the appearance of actually being able to move in his body armor, something that the previous “Batman” films could never convince.
A lot of the credit goes to Nolan for deciding early on and then sticking to the notion of a realistic Batman. After a night of battling thugs, Batman wakes up with bruises all over his body. When he first encounters the Scarecrow, Batman nearly gets himself killed, ending up on fire and frantically calling Alfred for salvation. Goyer’s script has its moments, but one suspects that the film’s biggest weakness, its Ra’s Al Ghul subplot (especially in the third act) is the fault of Goyer, who is known for such grand villainy in his comic book movies (of which the writer seems to have cornered the market).
It’s the last third of “Batman Begins” that is its weakest, especially when Ra’s Al Ghul, thought dead, resurfaces with a plan to destroy all of Gotham City for — well, it’s a bit silly, and belongs in a comic book, or at least in a Schumacher or Burton “Batman”. In a Nolan “Batman” movie, the “out there” idea of Ra’s Al Ghul to “cleanse” Gotham City and start all over again just seems out of place and too, well, comic booky. In a movie that is so determined to be as realistic as possible, the overblown third act, with a citywide disaster in the making, is too much to take in, and it overwhelms much of the grit that Nolan had created up to that point.
“Batman Begin’s” other major asset is Christian Bale, who is utterly convincing as the tormented Bruce Wayne and the athletic, ninja-like Batman. Bale has an outstanding supporting cast in Michael Caine, playing a younger version of Alfred (albeit not all that much “younger”), and Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) as Bruce’s de facto weaponsmith. The man known as the movie chameleon, Gary Oldman, delivers another outstanding supporting turn, and Oldman’s Jim Gordon is simply a treat whenever he’s onscreen. Equally fine is Tom Wilkinson as a vicious crimelord and Cillian Murphy (“28 Days Later”) as the downright creepy Scarecrow. Something about the insane twinkle in this guy’s eyes make you afraid of him, even if he happens to look like a nerd.
Alas, poor Katie Holmes fares the worst, and like Natalie Portman in the “Star Wars” films, I’m not entirely sure if Holmes is just not a very substantive actress (or an actress capable of strong emotions), or if it’s just some of the silly things Goyer and Nolan’s script has her say. Basically a walking fortune cookie (but insert poorly delivered self-righteous platitudes in lieu of Chinese wisdom), “Batman Begins” would have been so much better without the Dawes character. If you want to know how little impact Holmes’ character, or Holmes herself has on the movie, you could remove the character completely and it would have made for a tighter, more focused film.
“Batman Begins” marks a stunning return to form for the Caped Crusader. Or actually, it’s a return to the character’s Frank Miller days, when the Dark Knight Detective cracked bones and crushed thugs with surgical precision and didn’t waste time trading one-liners with his over-the-top foes in bright garb. With such an all-around excellent beginning under his belt, a dream “Batman” sequel would be one that takes place somewhere in the future, where an aging Bruce Wayne, long retired from his Dark Knight duties, must once again don the cape and cowl to bring order to the world.
One can only hope.
Christopher Nolan (director) / Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer (screenplay)
CAST: Christian Bale …. Bruce Wayne/Batman
Michael Caine …. Alfred
Liam Neeson …. Ducard
Katie Holmes …. Rachel Dawes
Gary Oldman …. Jim Gordon
Cillian Murphy …. Dr. Jonathan Crane
Tom Wilkinson …. Carmine Falcone
Rutger Hauer …. Earle
Ken Watanabe …. Ra’s Al Ghul