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
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.
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
One can only hope.