Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Review: Batman Begins (2005)

With Batman Begins, Warner Brothers tries to revive their morubund Batman franchise not with a prequel or yet another sequel, but by starting nearly from scratch--and the result is more entertaining and satisfying than their previous four efforts combined.

Director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan, best know for psychological mysteries like Memento and Insomnia, and co-screenwriter David Goyer, who wrote all three Blade movies (and directed the third), root through all the various comic-book versions of Batman's origin, pluck out the elements thay like, and make those elements fit together neatly enough that comic-book fans won't be overly offended while newcomers to the Batman mythos won't be hopelessly lost.

Wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne (intense, brooding Christian Bale) travels the world studying criminal behavior after seeing his parents gunned down in an alley in grim, crime-riddled Gotham City (which looks a heck of a lot like Chicago in Batman Begins--maybe because large chunks of it were shot here) and watching their murderer murdered in turn at the behest of crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), leaving his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), his childhood sweetheart, Rachel (Katie Holmes) and the Wayne financial empire behind.

While mixing it up with crooks in the Far East, Bruce meets Ducard (Liam Neeson), a mysterious stranger who offers to introduce Bruce to master fighter Ra's Al Guhl (Ken Watanabe) and his League of Shadows (whose name sounds like a slight tip of the cap to one of the inspirations for Batman--the Shadow, who also trained in the Far East). Bruce does fine with the martial arts training, but draws the line when it comes to executing criminals--when Ducard and Ra's order Bruce to cut a murderer's head off, he instead fights his way out and returns to Gotham, intent on frightening the feces out of all the bad guys by dressing as a huge-ass bat. (That would do the trick for me.)

Bruce gets an assist from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a WayneCorp exec who got busted to the basement by sinister CEO Earle (Rutger Hauer). But the basement is where all the toys are--like the body armor (sans nipples), cape and, best of all, the Batmobile, which looks a lot like what Frank Miller drew in The Dark Knight Returns, but scaled down (the Batmobile on Slimfast?).

If it sounds like this takes a while to spool out, it does--but that's a good thing. Nolan and Goyer set up why Bruce is the way he is, explain how he can do what he does and give him allies like Alfred, Lucius and police detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman)--who just might just make comissioner some day--to help him in his war on crime. Bruce Wayne isn't just a kinky weirdo who likes to dress up as a flying rodent--to his mind, he's honoring his parents' memory by cleaning the streets of the same kind of bad guys who took them out of his life.

And just as Bale digs into his character, so does everybody else, especially Michael Caine, who makes Alfred into less of a butler/helper/snarky Brit and more of a father figure who supports his young charge's battle but fears the ultimate outcome, and Freeman, who plays Lucius with a wry smile and mischeivous sparkle in his eyes. These aren't two Oscar-winning actors slumming in a comic-book movie; they're old pros who know how to ad depth with small gestures and looks that pages of dialogue can't express.

Nolan and Goyer haven't skimped on the bad guys, either, giving Batman worthy opponents like psychotic psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later...), who's a good deal sicker than any of his patients and loves dressing up like a scarecrow to scare the shit out of them (not to fight crime, but just because he likes to).

Just because we get plenty of well-developed characters, though, doesn't mean this movie is slow. Oh, no. The back half of Batman Begins isn't lacking for action at all--plenty of fights and chases (including a length pursuit of the Batmobile by damn near every cop in Gotham) and confrontations and confessions.

The only element of the movie that doesn't really work is the romance with Holmes, which feels shoehorned in just because the hero has to have a love interest, doesn't he? Well, no, he really doesn't. Fortunately, the Bruce/Rachel lovie-dovie doesn't take up huge amounts of screen time, so we get more than enough background on what makes Batman, his friends and his opposite numbers tick.

Batman Begins may not be the most accurate comic-to-movie adaptation--though it comes much closer on that score than most of the other cape-and-cowl efforts of late--but it does a better job than any other super-hero movie of explaining as the motivations behind the mask.

I hardly ever say this, but I look forward to the inevitable sequel. I want to know what happens next.