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Thursday, October 2, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''BATMAN BEGINS" (2005)

This Caped Crusader prequel, appropriately entitled "Batman Begins" (***1/2 out of ****) tops all previous "Batman" epics, beginning with Tim Burton's revisionist 1989 "Batman" starring Michael Keaton and winding down with Joel Schumacher's cartoon-like "Batman and Robin" (1997) with George Clooney. Fortunately, "Memento" writer & director Christopher Nolan brings a welcome sense of gravity to the legendary DC Comics mortal hero franchise that eluded earlier epics. (I'm not including either the supremely satirical "Batman" TV series and its spin-off movie or either "Batman" film serials from 1943 and 1949. The first two Burton-helmed features "Batman" and "Batman Returns" converted our hero into a dark, lone avenger, negotiating a surreal landscape and clashing with warped villains, while the Schumacher "Batman" movies tried to lighten things up by imitating the seminal 1960's live-action, ABC-TV series.

Although "Blade" scenarist David Goyer and Nolan get nearly about everything right, they fall just short of perfection on three counts. First, the featherweight casting of Katie Holmes as an anemic but idealistic love interest who acts like every damsel-in-distress weakens not only the plot but any respect we might have felt for her clich├ęd heroine.

Second, the heavyweight presence of two-time, Oscar-winner Michael Caine as a highly dignified but personable Alfred, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler, literally blows Christian Bale off the screen whenever they appear together. The senior British superstar dominates every scene and everybody around him with the merest facial expression or the inflection of a line of dialogue. Similarly, as if to compensate for our limited exposure to Bale as a fixture in mainstream movies, Warner Brothers has stuffed this superior saga with other high-profile celebrity actors, such as Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman, Emmy-winner Gary Oldman, and none other than Rutger Hauer in a breakout role from his usual straight-to-video tripe. The Brothers Warner need not have worried, because Bale ranks as the best Batman to date.

Third, Goyer and Nolan give Bruce Wayne's playboy billionaire character the short shrift and emphasize instead his death-defying alter-ego. Reckless, debonair playboy Bruce Wayne shows up for only a couple of scenes. (Aside from these complaints, the only other problem that bothered me in this spectacularly lensed, richly atmospheric crime melodrama was the beards that Bale and Oscar-nominated Liam Neeson wear at the outset. The beards appeared as bored stiff make-up artists had pasted them onto the actors!) Meanwhile, a dynamic ending sets us up for the inevitable sequel. Happily, everybody from the original has been signed up for the follow-up film, except the expendable Holmes, and up as Batman's next nemesis, no doubt an homage to Burton's "Batman," is the Joker. "Batman Begins" benefits immensely from the offbeat casting of second-string leading man Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader. Imagine Michael Keaton buffed up and stretched out on a rack to leading man heights, and you'll get a good idea what to expect from "American Psycho" star. Not only does he exert more presence as Batman, Bale looks rugged enough and believable as an individual who has endured more than his share of tragedy and turmoil. Unlike the unhinged Keaton Batman, Bale doesn't have an anger management problem. If anything, Bale's Batman suffers from a fear management problem. Furthermore, Bale doesn't look like the Ken doll that pretty boy Val Kilmer was, and the Batman costume that Bale dons isn't decked out with nipples like the one George Clooney had to wear in "Batman and Robin." Indeed, Goyer and Nolan had elevated their Batman to Shakespearean heights. Like the Keaton "Batman" movies, "Batman Begins" qualifies as a dark, foreboding thriller with horrific touches that you'd never imagine in a PG-13 rated movie.

Best of all "Batman Begins" provides a solid basis for the origins of the Caped Crusader. During the first third of the action, Goyer and Nolan examine Bruce Wayne's troubled childhood, the random but cold-blooded back alley murder of his parents, and the guilt that impressionable young Bruce shoulders as a result of his parents' death. Indeed, the sequences with a grown-up Bruce slugging it out with thuggish inmates at a Red Chinese prison are about as far out as any Batman movie has ever dared to go. Happily, Goyer and Nolan have given Bruce Wayne a legitimate reason for venturing off to China, so these scenes don't degenerate into a sight-seeing travelogue. "Batman Begins" shows us what the Batcave looked like before the furniture found its way into it. Unlike the last four "Batman" pictures, "Batman Begins" confines itself to one major villain backed up by two secondary bad guys who are no slouches in themselves. Liam Neeson arrives earliest as Bruce Wayne's ruthless battle teacher. A great deal of similarity exists between Neeson's role here and his Jedi Knight in George Lucas' "Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace." Oscar-winner English actor Tom Wilkinson of "In the Bedroom" (2002) makes villainous Carmine Falcone into a loud-mouthed, unsympathetic lout, while Irish actor Cillian Murphy brings a fiendish quality to an otherwise mild-mannered Dr. Krane. Meanwhile, in keeping with "Batman Begins" prequel status, Bale cuts quite a figure in the least glamorous looking Batman outfit, which features no signature Bat chest-piece emblem. If you took the best parts of the four earlier Batman movies and balanced them out, you'd come close to "Batman Begins." Hardcore fans of DC Comics' Batman can finally have their cape and eat it, too.

Principally, "Batman Begins" differs from the other movies based on Bob Kane's immortal comic book character in that it borrows the training sequences from the Antonio Banderas swashbuckler "The Mask of Zorro" and adds elements of spiritualism from marital arts movies. Ultimately, "Batman Begins" ushers the Caped Crusader into the 21st century with fanfare galore. If you call yourself a "Batman" fan, you're going to have to watch this movie.

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