|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 15 June 2005|
However, it does many more things right than it does wrong. The last two movies in the previous Batman series, both directed by Joel Schumacher, were grotesquely overdone, largely smirking action comedies styled more like the Adam West TV series than the two Tim Burton-directed movies that began the big-scale series. Since then, the many movies based on Marvel Comics heroes have generally been enormous blockbusters, even the much-maligned “Hulk.” Warner Bros. is now owned by the same company that owns DC Comics, Marvel’s long-time rival, so they’ve had access to the two most famous superheroes of all, Superman and Batman.
Warners has made reasonable use of Superman in the “Lois & Clark” and “Smallville” series, with a new feature now in production, and both have been given lively workout in TV animation. And, of course, the comic books themselves are still published. “Batman Begins” is an obvious effort to re-launch the series. And in that, they’ve clearly succeeded. It’s an audience-pleasing movie; the audience at the press screening broke into applause at the mention of the famous character who’s likely to be Batman’s nemesis in the next movie, and at the end of the movie itself as Batman swoops over Gotham City. (He’s not swinging from a silken cord, as in the comic books, but being held aloft hang-glider style by the wings of his cape.)
Tim Burton deliberately shied away from an origin story in his first Batman movie—but this movie, written by director Christopher Nolan and life-long comic book fan David S. Goyer (all 3 “Blade” movies) embraces the origin, makes it so important to its story that Batman doesn’t appear for more than an hour. In Chicago-like Gotham City, Dr. Thomas Wayne is a respected squillionaire, adored by his wife and young son Bruce. He’s quickly sketched in as a loving father, responsible businessman and dedicated doctor. Young Bruce tumbles into a well on the estate and is terrified by flocks of bats who live in the caves there. Later, his parents take him to the opera (Boito’s “Mefistofeles” rather than the more appropriate “Der Fliedermaus”) where his bat-phobia manifests itself. They leave, and a passing thief kills the Waynes. Bruce is plunged into an abyss of guilt—and in this story, never really emerges.
We’re given only sketchy details about what happens between the death of young Bruce’s parents and when college-age Bruce is of college age, but clearly he’s spent a lot of time agonizing over what he sees as his guilt. The Wayne Foundation, which manages scads of businesses, is turned over to Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer). Bruce bids goodbye to childhood playmate Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and lifelong, loyal family butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and disappears.
We find him in jail in that the production notes say is Bhutan. He cleans the clocks of a bunch of fellow inmates and is tossed into solitary confinement—which turns out to be less than solitary when the elegant, soft-spoken Ducard (Liam Neeson) appears to offer him a way of dealing with his problems. Out of jail, Bruce tracks Ducard to a vast wooden palace in the Himalayas; Ducard works for terse Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the head of the League of Shadows. This is an organization dedicated to world harmony, and is prepared to destroy anyone and anything that it considers disharmonous—even to entire cities. Gotham City has turned very corrupt in Bruce’s absence, and Ra’s wants to wipe it out.
Ducard, who also feels guilt for the death of a loved one, trains Bruce in various forms of combat and, more important, the idea that “theatricality and deception are powerful elements.” But Bruce won’t turn killer. He battles Ducard, Ra’s and a lot of ninja-like warriors until the place burns down, killing Ra’s. (Bruce rescues Ducard.)
Bruce calls Alfred who promptly arrives in one of the Wayne Foundation’s private jets, and they return to Gotham City. Bruce befriends Foundation employee Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who has access to lots of unused gadgets that catch Bruce’s attention. There’s this bullet-deflecting body armor, for one thing, and a big tank-like car. After he takes it for a test drive, Bruce asks Fox if it comes in black. You bet.
Everything gets very complicated about here, and the movie is clumsy in trying to relate everything to everything else. There’s the big crime boss of Gotham City, Carmine Falcone (a great, snarling Tom Wilkinson), there’s the mysterious head of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a tense, witty type who has a sideline as the masked Scarecrow, whose gas reduces his opponents to fearful, quivering lumps. Childhood sweetie Rachel is now a crusading District Attorney. There are all these crooked cops, except for honest Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Bruce enlists the quizzical Alfred in turning those bat caves into the Batcave, and he finally puts on the famous suit. Here, instead of gray and black, it’s all black with a silver belt buckle. Then Batman starts cleaning up the town. You won’t be surprised when an old foe turns up.
The directorial reins were handed this time to Christopher Nolan; his clever “Memento” and the less-interesting “Insomnia” were both critical and boxoffice successes. He didn’t grow up on comic books, but he’s taking this one as seriously as if he were a die-hard fan. Gone are the smart-ass wisecracks that hampered the Schumacher entries; in is a deadly serious, grim Batman with a deep, rasping growl (Bale uses different voices for Bruce Wayne and Batman).
“Batman Begins” is a big-scale, purposeful adventure, attempting to set Batman in a more realistic context than Tim Burton employed in his two Batman movies. But this isn’t exactly realism; Gotham City is ten times the size of Manhattan, sprawling over an island and extensive shoreline of a huge lake. (One weakness in the film is that for the climax to be comprehensible, the audience should have been issued maps of Gotham.) From the air—and we see it a lot from that perspective—it’s a huge, gleaming assemblage of towering buildings, most of which look like they were built yesterday. A remarkable monorail, which seems to be double-decker, laces the city together. The slums are squalid and cramped, and it often rains down there, if never at Wayne Manor. There doesn’t seem to be a middle class at all. So we’re still in comic book land, here.
The cast is exceptional. Morgan Freeman isn’t given much to do except look wise and humorous, which he does very well. Michael Caine is a more activist Alfred that Michael Gough was in the previous Warner Bros. Batman features, and a bit wittier (though we’re not talking John Gielgud-in-“Arthur” witticisms here). Gary Oldman seems somewhat surprised to find himself on the side of good this time, and gives a lively, funny performance, though his huge mustache does make him look rather like Andy Clyde. It’s great to see Rutger Hauer in a big-scale movie again; he manages to make Earle greedy and grasping without turning him into a conscience-less swine. Tom Wilkinson, on the other hand, is exactly a conscience-less swine, and a great deal of fun—at least for as long as he lasts. Cillian Murphy, from “28 Days Later,” is a bit fragile-looking as Dr. Crane, but he invests the role with a truly creepy quality; he’s actually unnerving.
Liam Neeson is fine, but he’s in overly familiar territory here. His role in “Batman Returns” is similar to the characters he played in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” “Gangs of New York” and this year’s “Kingdom of Heaven.” He’s the wise, melancholy older warrior determined to shape his pupil into an even finer fighting machine than himself. The dialogue in the Himalayan scenes, unfortunately, tends toward the “you have learned well, grasshopper” school of Eastern philosophy wrestled into Western context that a lot of comic book fanboys regard as really deep, man. Ducard solemnly tells Bruce “to conquer fear, you must become fear.” That’s like saying to conquer the mumps, you must become the mumps. Still and all, Neeson does this kind of thing better than anyone else.
The relationship between Bruce and Rachel is a big bust; there’s no chemistry at all between the two leads, and Rachel has relatively little to do. One major element the film sorely lacks is romance—and I don’t mean huggy kissy stuff, I mean the term as used to describe, say, a pirate movie as romantic. In Burton’s first “Batman,” the scene in which Batman drives Vicki Vale through a silvery night is more intensely romantic, in both senses of the word, than anything in “Batman Begins.” There should be more flair, more excitement, more delight; whatever else he is—the Dark Knight, the World’s Greatest Detective, Billionaire Playboy—Batman is a swashbuckler. Usually—because he certainly isn’t one here.
The movie looks very serious and grim; I don’t think there are any bright colors at all, not even in Bruce Wayne’s home—probably too vast to be considered a mere manor (and I don’t think that word is uttered anyway). Production designer Nathan Crowley and cinematographer Wally Pfister (who shot “Memento” and “Insomnia”) go all out; the look of the film is unified and precise from beginning to end. Too bad, though, that we never get a really good look at Bale in his bat suit. The special effects, both miniatures and CGI, are extensive but not obvious, shaped to the needs of the film and the goal of realism. Or real-ish, anyway.
Nolan handles the dramatics very well, and at times the staging is inventive and imaginative, as in the Himalayan sequence—but the fights are simply awful. We see bad guys looking surprised at strange noises. There’s a kind of blur, and we see something black whirling amidst the bad guys and hear the sounds of fists hitting chins. Each fight is rendered—and that’s the word—in dozens of extremely quick cuts, so fast there’s no sense at all of impact or excitement. And each fight looks exactly like every other fight in the movie. Nolan seems to be following a tediously overused contemporary style rather than employing clarity and choreography.
There’s also something lacking in the Batman scenes. Yes, the idea is that he moves so quickly he’s almost a phantom—but WE know he’s Bruce Wayne, so why don’t we get a chance to see how he moves, even how he LOOKS, as Batman? He’s a shadowy blur. This may be interesting graphically, but it interferes with audience identification with the character we really NEED to identify with—heck, just to identify. We are shown Bruce learning some of the things he’ll need to know as Batman, we see why he chooses the bat as his emblem, we even see where the Bat Signal comes from. But we are rarely shown Batman, full-figure, the only character on screen.
The climax is very busy, with the League of Shadows attempting to destroy the populace of Gotham City with only Batman and an overworked Gordon prepared to stop this. Nolan goes for broke: there’s a highly destructive car chase through the city and over raising bridges with the Batmobile pursued by police cars, and a big fight between Batman and the head villain on a speeding monorail that is doing something really bad as it goes. (I couldn’t figure out just what, but it does involve a lot of manhole covers flipping like tiddly-winks in the wake of the train.) All this is staged with a verve, panache and even wit that some scenes in the rest of the film could well have used.
While those misfired or overlooked elements weaken the movie, they don’t destroy it. Batman is still a great superhero, one of the few without super powers; the idea of a guy trying all on his own, bedecked with gadgets though he is, He’s a very American hero—the privileged billionaire turning his back on his class to help the downtrodden is one of the great American myths. He’s glamorous and heroic—but also tortured and driven. And he’s back on the big screen in a picture that’s sure to make almost as much money as Bruce Wayne has to play with as Batman.