Monday, June 27, 2005

"Batman Begins" with a Bang


directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer...basically your average cast to die for...oh yeah, and Katie Holmes (who's actually not bad)

Batman’s back. And in a big way.

It’s too early to tell whether “Batman Begins” will revive the ailing franchise. Artistically, however, it’s single-handedly rescued the dark knight’s checkered cinematic legacy—and not a moment too soon.

By now, Warner Bros.’ mishandling of one of its most valuable properties has become a cautionary tale to greedy studios. (Moral: When making a movie out of a comic book, do not piss off the fanboys. And do not, under any circumstances, hire Joel Schumacher to direct.) I never saw the last Batman (“Batman & Robin”), having been unfortunate enough to suffer through the inanities of “Batman Forever. “ However, my father, who did witness the final train-wreck, summed it up best: “A very expensive comic book made for IDIOTS.”

Well, that was eight years ago, and we’ve come a long way, baby. Not as long as we could have: although WB reportedly flirted with the idea of going über-dark by courting indie darling Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”), the studio honchos ended up striking a safer middle course, tapping Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) instead. All good. However intriguing (or vomit-inducing) an Aronofsky spin on the Batman myth might have been, choosing Nolan was a smart move. The key was to restore some of the gravitas and mystique to a superhero who had descended into a wretched swamp of camp, but without becoming too dour or pretentious. Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer ride this fine line with remarkable success. *This* is the myth of an icon’s origin and genesis that “Star Wars” should have been, and wasn’t, over the course of three prequels.

True to its title, “Batman Begins” traces how Batman first emerged as the alter ego of charming billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Turns out that when Brucie was just a wee lad, he fell down a hole in his thousand-acre back yard into a dark grotto, where he was promptly attacked by a legion of bats. His resulting fear of the creatures indirectly leads to his parents’ death one fateful night in Gotham City. (Here, the double murder is a random crime, and not, as in Tim Burton’s original “Batman,” the work of the Joker.) Still haunted by guilt and anger a decade or so later, young Bruce disappears for seven years, slumming in search of his lost soul. His wanderings land him in a prison in some vaguely Asiatic mountainous country, where the movie begins, then lead him to the vaguely Asiatic monastery-like stronghold of a group called the League of Shadows, who are committed to wiping out evil and corruption at any price. There, Bruce is trained by a Jedi-master type named Ducard (wonderfully played by Liam Neeson, always at his best in a didactic role), and the head of the League, the vaguely Asiatic Ra’s al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”). After a major falling-out with the League, stemming from—well, philosophical differences, he decamps and returns to Gotham, hoping to save the city from itself.

Does that all sound terribly corny? Oh, undoubtedly. But, somehow, it isn’t. The mood of “BB” is solemn, yet not unduly so, and even in its most static and clichéd moments it’s never less than riveting. A good part of that is due to its crisp pacing, all the more striking for a movie that clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours. Pacing is something Nolan has down pat as a filmmaker, even if he’s no longer pulling the narrative shenanigans that first caught Hollywood’s eye. Also, Nolan is a hell of a lot better than George Lucas at directing actors. Unlike their “Star Wars” counterparts, the characters in “Batman” can actually get away with bad lines—e.g., “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” (To borrow another viewer’s quip, never you mind who I’m underneath.) That’s because they don’t merely recite the lines; they utter them as if they really believe them.

It helps, of course, that Nolan has such a stellar cast to work with. As portrayed by Bale, the young Batman has a darkness of soul that seems genuinely internalized rather than imposed by the demands of the story arc (hear that, Anakin Skywalker?), and a reservoir of suppressed rage that’s just barely channeled into his efforts to do good. Luckily for him, he finds allies ready at hand: among them, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a Wayne Industries employee who supplies Bruce with the armor, gadgets, and wheels to kick-start his crimefighting ventures; not-yet-Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who’s apparently the last honest cop in Gotham; and, of course, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Waynes’ wry, faithful butler, who sparks most of the movie’s few moments of levity. Katie Holmes stars as the token female, Rachel Dawes, a childhood friend and/or sweetheart now grown into a gravely earnest assistant D.A. Holmes acquits herself reasonably well amid “Batman”’s roll call of moviedom’s finest, though she’s a bit young and lightweight for the character she plays, with a fluty voice oddly reminiscent of Kirsten Dunst’s. (Indeed, the final encounter between Bruce and Rachel at the end of the movie carries more than a whiff of the final encounter between Peter Parker and Mary Jane at the end of the first Spider-Man—only with the roles oddly reversed.) Lined up on the opposing side is the requisite formidable array of villains, including Tom Wilkinson (one of my favorite lower-profile actors, here struggling with a quasi-Bronxian accent) as a thuggish drug-lord, and “28 Days Later”’s Cillian Murphy as the cat-eyed, smooth-faced Dr. Crane (aka the Scarecrow), a superbly creepy forensic psychiatrist who likes to experiment on his patients.

Obviously, there’s a grand showdown building—but unless you’re a Batman aficionado, it may not be the one you’re anticipating, and it’s certainly not the highlight of the movie. The plotting is indifferent, culminating in the dastardly use of what appears to be the mother of all microwave ovens to turn the people of Gotham into rampaging maniacs (a popular theme, lately, from “28 Days Later” to last season’s finale of “Alias”). As an action flick, “Batman” is competent without being spectacular. The scenes of combat are brief, graceless and somewhat chaotic—none of your lyrically choreographed, balletic fight sequences here—though that may be appropriate, considering Batman’s trick is that he hits his targets out of nowhere, out of the darkness. Moreover, this being the chronicle of his origins, it shows his fighting techniques and persona as a work in progress rather than a signed and sealed M.O. Far from being calmly invulnerable or immortal, or even giddily swept up by his own powers (à la Spiderman), this superhero is shown battered, bruised, and brooding on his own limitations.

Visually, “Batman Begins” bears the stamp of its new director, and marks a refreshing change, to say the least, from his immediate predecessor. This is, I believe, the first and only Batman movie that spends a significant portion of its time outside Gotham City, and those scenes are beautifully filmed—from the windswept heights and frozen lakes of central Asia to the lush grounds of the Wayne estate, including, of course, the bat-filled grotto that becomes the Batcave. One of the movie’s most strikingly gorgeous images is that of the adult Bruce standing inside the cave, arms outstretched, allowing himself to be engulfed by the glittering swarm of bats. It’s that archetypal moment in which the hero confronts his deepest, most primal fear (reminiscent of that other great grotto scene, Luke’s in “The Empire Strikes Back”), but it stands out for its unearthly beauty and its underlying streak of perversity: Bruce conquers his fear by becoming at one with it, yes, but also by co-opting it and turning it against others.

As for Nolan’s Gotham, while it lacks the loopy fever-dream sensibility of Burton’s vision, it’s effective and nightmarish in its own way—less gothic-deco and more urban-decay in the tradition of “Metropolis” and “Blade Runner.” Perhaps the best and most expressive image that captures its essence is the elevated train that connects the heart of the city to its outer-bank neighborhoods. At the beginning of the movie, shown soon after it’s built by Wayne, Sr., as a gift to the city, it’s a sleek, pristine thing that seems to hail a future of progress and connection. By the end, some twenty-odd years later, it’s a decrepit wreck of its former self, filthy, rusty, covered in graffiti, and infested with crime. As such, it serves as a nicely self-contained chronicle of the city’s losing war against corruption.

It also throws into stark relief Batman’s grim determination to stem the tide while operating out of his gated and palatial estate. Some viewers have noted the classist underpinnings of the Batman myth, or even characterized it as an exposition of classic liberal guilt. Others see it as championing individual enterprise over collective inertia. The movie lends itself to these and many other readings. But Batman’s self-appointed mission is at bottom an expurgation of an intensely *personal* guilt, a public projection of his private struggle to accept a legacy tarnished by his own memories. It’s that constant struggle with past and potential powerlessness that gives this hero his enduring power.



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