(director/writer: Christopher Nolan; screenwriters: David S. Goyer/from Bob Kane characters; cinematographer: Wally Pfister; editor: Lee Smith; music: James Newton Howard/Hans Zimmer; 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 (Mr. Earle), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s Al Ghul), Gus Lewis (Bruce at 8), Mark Boone Junior (Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Richard Brake (Joe Chill); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Larry J. Franco/Charles Roven/Emma Thomas; Warner Brothers; 2005)
“A defining Batman.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Christopher Nolan (“Memento”/”Insomnia”) and co-writer David S. Goyer, an expert on comic book lore, reinvent in the $150 million Batman Begins a defining Batman from the previous films, which failed to do the Batman comic book character justice. None of the seven previous Batman flicks made from the comic book story caught the full flavor of the character and his obsessively dark brooding nature. That includes the ridiculous cartoonish 1966 spinoff from the TV serial starring Adam West, Tim Burton’s 1989 and 1992 versions going after spectacular sets and special effects, to the two Batman versions in 1995 and 1997 by Joel Schumacher which fell into being a ludicrous campy venture. Nolan’s approach respectfully tunes into his hero’s psyche using the psychological tools derived from Freud and Jung to establish what eggs him on, and presents a more vulnerable and human figure. Nolan’s aided by Frank Miller’s 1980’s darker characterization of Batman’s revenge motives to be a crime fighter. Miller, as the modern Batman updater, was able to recover the original brooding and darkness of the Bruce Wayne character that Batman creator Bob Kane gave to his D.C. comic book hero in 1939, when Batman was first introduced to the American public.
What draws many Batman fans to their vigilante hero, is that he’s the only comic book superhero fighting superpower villains without himself having superpower. The filmmaker stresses his human qualities to give us a bridge to understand why he’s so obsessed with fighting crime and getting revenge on the criminal element who murdered his wealthy loving parents when he was a child. The haunting incident, the defining moment of his life, involves his parents leaving the theater during an opera because of his fear when he sees bats and then in an ensuing holdup in an alley outside the theater they are murdered by a desperate criminal with a bad case of the jitters. This overwhelming sense of guilt and the anger that overcomes him as a young man, blaming his fear of bats on his parents death, some 14 years after that incident, is where the tale begins.
We see a strangely driven scraggly bearded Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in an Asian jail in his attempt to research the criminal mind and in a pent up rage attacking his fellow prisoners with an overwhelming force. In jail, Bruce’s approached by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson)–second in command to a clandestine criminal brotherhood called the League of Shadows, led by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe)–and asked to join the secret organization. Soon the League trains Bruce in Ninja-like fighting skills to join their criminal fraternity. But, after mastering their fighting methods, Bruce refuses to join them because he doesn’t believe in their executioner-like sense of justice. Returning, after seven years and being declared legally dead, to a crime-ridden and corrupt Gotham City, he reunites with the kindly family servant Alfred (Michael Caine) who acts as a surrogate father and helps the youngster reinvent himself as Batman and live in a secret bat cave on the residence. Posing as a carefree playboy, Bruce returns to the business empire started by his father and toys with the ambitious malevolent CEO Mr. Earle (Rutger Hauer) by not letting him know that he’s onto his secretive not too kosher business deals. Teaming with the firm’s head of the science-gadget department, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce is presented with his Batmobile and material for his costume. Bruce then goes after the town baddie, Mafia crime boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), who controls the city through intimidation and bribes. Working with the Mafia boss is the creepy Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a perverse psychiatrist who shows he could be even a more dangerous foe than the crime boss. As Bruce tries to get the kinks out of his new costume and do his cape thing on building walls without getting a wedgie, he also looks out for his would-be girlfriend Rachel (Katie Holmes). She’s an Assistant DA who can’t be bribed by Falcone, which puts her in danger. Batman then gets the confidence of the only honest cop in the town, the gruff Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who helps him evade the other corrupt officers–who have orders to arrest him. There’s no Joker villain around, he comes next after Batman takes care of all these unpleasant baddies. The supporting cast was exceptional, providing either the comedy or human warmth needed that couldn’t be provided by Bale without ruining his dark characterization. The only one who seemed stiff and out of place was Holmes, who had the look of someone who didn’t want to be spotted in Gotham City.
Batman Begins does what none of the other films did: tell the true psychological story of how the edgy lead character was driven to overcome his fear of bats and grow into the American pop-culture legend. It’s told as a dramatic and not as a comic book story, which allows the story to have a real emotional impact. Being a lavish summer blockbuster action film it can’t rid itself completely of the usual faults of these type of films, as it comes to a mindless action-packed conclusion that unnecessarily lengthens the film with its uninspiring conventional bang-bang sequences, silly dazzle and obligatory video game special effects. But that is not enough of a detriment to ruin this intelligently made film; one of the better comic book stories ever put to film.
The Batman franchise came to a screeching halt after the dismal Batman and Robin venture, but Christian Bale now bales it out as he takes over the role and gives it a new life with his more cerebral, serious and realistic presentation of the Caped Crusader figure. Bale was last seen in The Machinist, where he lost 63 pounds and looked emaciated. For this film he has regained his normal weight, and combines both the physical and mental skills to convince he’s the slightly loony aristocratic rich boy who has some serious issues to deal with but is, nevertheless, fighting the good fight.
REVIEWED ON 6/17/2005 GRADE: B+