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Batman Begins   A

Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer.

Review by Rob Vaux

Batman Begins is nothing less than a giant cinematic reset button. In one fell swoop, it erases the memory of the previous four films -- whose efforts ranged from the flawed to the flat-out abominable -- and replaces it with a powerful, unforgettable interpretation of the iconic superhero. There have been some terrific comic-book movies of late -- with Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man franchises leading the way -- but Batman Begins sets a new standard. Only Richard Donner's Superman stands as an equal; everything else was just a warm-up.

Director Christopher Nolan attains this triumph by positing a complete break from the earlier movies. As the press kit notes, realism and grit are the watchwords here, eliminating the seductive expressionism of Tim Burton's films (and the garish neon of Joel Schumacher's disasters) in favor of genuine plausibility for the Dark Knight and his world. Yet some level of expressionism remains, filtered through very different eyes. Nolan, whose previous work includes the noir thrillers Memento and Insomnia, uses the film's locations to help us connect with the psyche of Bruce Wayne, the young boy whose wealthy parents are gunned down before his eyes. The vistas of Iceland stand in for the Tibetan Himalayas, where an adult Wayne (Christian Bale) finds himself lost in the shadows of his own pain. Nolan's use of the bleak glaciers and mountaintops are as evocative as Anton Furst's designs for the original Batman, only here they are yoked to a much stronger story. Wayne is soon approached by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who belongs to a mysterious league of warriors led by the enigmatic Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). They take him in and infuse him with a sense of purpose -- for they share his hatred of criminals -- as well as teaching him all manner of skills to hone his body and mind.

The atmosphere doesn't change when Wayne breaks from their ranks and moves back to Gotham City -- now overrun with crime -- with the intention of saving it from itself. Nolan grounds the look of the metropolis by filming in Chicago (though CGI was used for the establishing shots), which gives Gotham a true sense of place (instead of just interesting artifice, as in Burton's films). Bruce's faithful manservant Alfred (Michael Caine) is waiting for him, of course, as is an unexpected ally in the form of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a scientist at Wayne Industries who's been relegated to the basement while white-collar miscreants use the company for their own purposes. Fox has a toy box full of gadgets, from a Kevlar-backed combat suit to a high-tech car cum battle tank, which Bruce secretly appropriates for his own use. As with the landscapes, the devices are all designed with an air of realism, and the film subtlety clues us in as to how they work without intruding upon the plotline (credit co-screenwriter David Goyer, who brought a similar sensibility to the goodies in the Blade pictures).

But Batman Begins earns its real stripes by harnessing that plausibility and anchoring it to the characters. Everyone here has a sense of personality and humanity, and their interactions with Wayne are both smoothly developed and perfectly integrated into the plot. Once Bruce dons his cape and cowl as Batman, he finds additional allies in straight-arrow detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who is now an assistant DA. Along with the other supporting players, they bring rich depth to the various figures in Wayne's life, letting us get to know the people who helped shape him into what he is. I feared that Holmes would be a weak link in the proceedings, but she holds her own admirably, contributing a sense of fairness and justice that balances Wayne's darker impulses. The rest of the cast is ridiculously good, and each makes his respective character far more than background scenery.

But while the periphery figures are all solid, they are not the film's principal focus. For once, we get a Batman movie that's about Batman: his torments, his desires, and the terrible void that drives him to do what he does. It's unprecedented in exploring Bruce's early relationship with his loving, altruistic father (Linus Roache), which helps us understand what he lost. From there, it expands into an intense demonstration of how a lonely little boy can transform into such a feared and respected figure. In this sense, there is no better actor to portray him than Bale, who handles Bruce's idle playboy facade as effectively as the complex emotions that lie beneath it. In many ways, Batman Begins is an examination of fear -- starting with Wayne's and expanding into the ways he uses it against his enemies. Here too, Bale finds solid footing, conveying both the character's own phobias and the way he slowly marshals them into a potent weapon. Batman Begins features some terrific villains -- from Cillian Murphy's fiendish Scarecrow to Tom Wilkinson's Boss Falcone -- but they don't detract from the man in the cape. Earlier films used the bad guys as a platform for movie stars to indulge their egos. Nolan understands that it's the characters who matter, not the names on the marquee, and that the villains never come before the hero who opposes them.

Ironically, the only thing pedestrian about this Batman is the action scenes, though even they have an agreeable intensity. The visual effects focus on miniatures and stunt work, rather than CGI, which helps further the film's quasi-verité grounding and pays dividends during the big set piece: a chase between the proto-Batmobile and the police. The fight scenes are more of a mixed bag. Nolan and editor Lee Smith use close-ups and montages to convey a sense of brutal confusion, which works, but also makes the action hard to follow. It's a minor issue, however, which boils down to creative choice more than genuine flaw.

Above all Batman Begins understands the need to deliver a script that does as much justice to the hero as the sets and costumes. It knows what this character is about, and crafts an ode to everything that 65 years worth of fans have come to love. (There's a particular debt to Frank Miller, whose seminal Year One comic provides the inspiration for several key scenes.) Considering what came before it, it certainly had its work cut out for it. The Burton films, while admirable in some ways, were still deeply problematic, and the less said about Schumacher's entries, the better. (We will never forgive you, Joel. Never, never. never.) But with all that at its back, Batman Begins digs deep and ends up exceeding our every expectation. It took them five tries to finally get it right; thanks to Nolan and Co., the long wait was worth it.

Review published 06.12.2005.

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