Batman Begins Review
Finally they've made a Batman movie that's interested in Batman. Tim Burton's gothic circuses made the Caped Crusader a backseat passenger in his own Batmobile, playing second fiddle to starry villains, while Joel Schumacher's neon-drenched pantomimes swept character aside entirely and mined the franchise for cheap jokes and spectacle. With Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan does what neither of his predecessors even tried to do - he takes us inside Bruce Wayne's head and lets us care about this screwed up rich kid turned superhero.
That makes all the difference. On the surface, Batman Begins isn't a million miles from the other movies in the series. Once again it comes down to Batman taking on supervillains, battling their henchmen and saving Gotham City from a preposterous plan to destroy it. Of course it does - it's a Batman movie - but thanks to Nolan's groundwork, this time you'll actually care whether Batman wins and Gotham is saved. That's what separates this film from the other summer blockbusters currently showing. There's a human story you can get involved with. It's a relief to learn there are still people working in the action genre who realise that explosions are more entertaining if you care who gets blown up.
The movie opens with a twentysomething Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) languishing in an Asian prison of all places. Having abandoned his place as the heir to his father's business empire, Bruce is travelling the world to study criminals and the criminal mind, posing when necessary as one of them. In his cell, he's visited by a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson). He represents an underground crime-fighting organisation known as The League Of Shadows and he's come on behalf of its leader, Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) to recruit Bruce. Journeying to the League's mountaintop headquarters, Bruce is trained in the martial arts and taught to confront his childhood demons: his parents were senselessly murdered before his eyes. However, he isn't prepared for the ruthlessness of the League's methods and he can't bring himself to put aside his humanity and join them.
Instead he returns to Gotham City, which has become overrun with crime and corruption. Gang boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) is the unofficial mayor. The few honest cops such as kindly Sergeant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and idealistic district attorneys like Bruce's childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), have their hands tied when so many of their colleagues are on Falcone's payroll. Bruce decides it's time for someone to make a stand. With the help of his family's loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and with technology provided by his father's old colleague Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the young man turns himself into a supernatural figure that will strike fear into the hearts of the criminal fraternity - the Batman.
The first half of Christopher Nolan's lengthy film is the strongest. Bruce's initiation into The League Of Shadows, interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, works superbly as drama. It's so gripping and intelligent, you might forget you're watching a summer action film. Nolan and his co-writer David S Goyer (Blade) even tackle thorny questions about the ethics of justice and revenge, themes Nolan has explored before in Memento and Insomnia. This Batman comes with a conscience: he's a crimefighter, not a winged vigilante. He won't kill.
The rest of the movie is more conventional, introducing the expected, larger-than-life villains and supplying in spades the action audiences have come to see. Nolan is not a great action director but then neither is Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher. He does a decent enough job and the special effects, while short of groundbreaking, are quite adequate. The most memorable action sequence is a destructive chase involving the new Batmobile - a squat, tank-like creation a million miles from the aerodynamic jet-cars in the previous films. Police cars are smashed by the dozen but Nolan is wise enough to give us a reason to care about more than the property damage: the chase is a race against time to save a life. The brain and heart Nolan brings to the film more than makes up for the relative lack of flash.
His skill with actors is another big plus. Christian Bale is excellent as the tortured hero, at last fulfilling the action hero potential he showed in half-baked adventures like Equilibrium and Reign Of Fire. His Bruce Wayne is a vivid portrayal of a man struggling to overcome his own fear and rage so he can count himself worthy to become Gotham's saviour. It's thanks to Bale that we're in Bruce's corner from the very beginning. You can forget Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney: Christian Bale has made this role his own.
He's ably supported by one of the best casts around, headed by Michael Caine as Alfred, the only English butler who talks like a South London greengrocer. Caine gives the film a welcome jolt of warmth and humour. Liam Neeson is on commanding form as the mysterious Ducard, while Morgan Freeman shows a pleasingly light touch as the now-obligatory Q substitute. It's nice to see Rutger Hauer making a comeback, playing Wayne Enterprises' smarmy new CEO. With this and Sin City under his belt, hopefully his career will get a major boost.
Some of the actors are underused, for instance Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy - as Arkham Asylum's creepy head shrink - who both make strong early impressions. They're replaced by a mystery villain who emerges in the last half-hour - it would be spoiling things to reveal his identity. While we're on a negative note, Gary Oldman just isn't cut out for the likeable buddy role and poor Katie Holmes is stuck with easily the worst written character - much like Kirsten Dunst is in the Spider-Man pictures. Superhero films have little use for girls unless they're dressed in PVC and wielding whips.