Thursday, February 8, 2007

Review: Batman Begins

[Originally published in The Clovis Independent]

"A guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues,” says Bruce Wayne in a line from “Batman Begins.”

Well, no kidding. And we’ve known it for some time.

Anybody familiar with the four most-recent Batman movies can probably tell you why: boy's family is murdered before his eyes, grown boy uses family fortune to fight crime as a superhero.

What’s been lacking is exactly how the superhero part came about. Until now, fans wondering whence came those rad gadgets, vehicles and superhuman fighting skills have been asked to accept it all with a wink.

In offering good, surprisingly believable, explanations for such questions — and a few I at least never thought to ask — “Batman Begins” rises to the top of the franchise, rivaled only by memorable performances of Jack Nicholson in “Batman” and Jim Carrey in “Batman Forever.”

“Batman Begins” director and co-writer Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) is the true hero of Gotham this time, rescuing even our hero from the depths of overblown, pyrotechnical, homoerotic hell in which George Clooney and “Batman & Robin” director Joel Schumacher abandoned him in 1997.

Nolan, considered more of an intellectual “filmmaker’s filmmaker” than a commercial gun for hire, was an odd but intriguing choice to reinvent the Bat.

"Make it real" was reportedly his mantra throughout the production, Nolan pushing his creative team relentlessly to create a world viewers could relate to.

Shedding the 1940s noir-inspired look of films one through three, the setting here is modern. Abandoning the impossibly colossal backdrops of the first films, real-world Chicago now doubles for Gotham, albeit tweaked, darkened and future-embellished with strategically placed digital facades.

Consider the Batmobile. (Oh, consider the Batmobile.) Far from the polished, purring work of art we’ve known to this point, it’s been reconceived here as a tank-like mountain of metal and raw power better suited for a live-fire monster truck rally in Iraq than impressing chicks the way Robin tried to use it a film or two back.

(A word on the Batmobile: when watching, bear in mind this is no prop car. It’s a fully functioning, 2.5 ton, 15-foot, zero-to-60-in-under-five beast with 400 pounds of torque and the ability — I’m just reading the press release here, folks — to jump 4 to 6 feet for distances up to 60 feet and peel out when it hits the ground. ...Yeah, baby.)

But back to those “issues.”

Nolan’s gift for character evidently demanded he not skip in that department either.

Key to understanding Bruce Wayne’s complicated psyche is his, well, batiness. Nolan makes Bruce’s inner journey — not the freakish villains, not the hardware — the focal point of the story. For the first time, we really get the hero’s fear of his own image and experience a degree of his enemies' terror when he turns it against them.

The film also offers a few deeper observations on justice and the law — even some theological implications maybe vis-a-vis sin and salvation — themes which, while hinted at in the first film, have never really been explored until now.

The cast is a winner too, though the "best bat" debate will no doubt continue among fans of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and now Christian Bale. (Adam West may get a few votes too for nostalgia’s sake. Clooney...? Lucky to escape with a career.)

Christian Bale has always had a certain remote quality that can sink a role as often as make it. It serves him here, and could finally push the maturing Internet pinup boy to the A-list level he probably deserves.

Michael Caine and Liam Neeson steal the show repeatedly, Cain as a dimensionalised, surprisingly moving Alfred the Butler, and Neeson as Bruce Wayne’s ironfisted and equally complicated mentor Ducard.

Gary Oldman — as geeky-but-gritty Commissioner Gordon, The Early Years — a revitalized Rutger Hauer and an under-used Morgan Freeman round out the cast.

The only real casting misstep is Katie Holmes. She does a passable job as Bruce’s delicate love interest, but embodying Gotham’s hard-as-nails district attorney, she’s clearly the weak spot in the lineup.

If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s that Nolan and company have done such a good job of touching all bases in terms of story universe and narrative, that there’s a hurried feel to the pacing. It‘s understandable, and probably unavoidable, but in the end we still don’t quite walk away with the emotional kinship we shared with Peter Parker’s Spider-Man.

Or maybe we’re not supposed to. The fact we've been made to care about the issues of a guy who dresses like a bat is impressive enough.

Batman Begins
4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5

Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer

Released by: Warner Bros.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements.
Time: 2 hour 20 minutes
Playing at: UA Clovis Town Center 8, Edwards Stadium 21, Regal Manchester Stadium 16, UA Broadway Faire 10

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