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Batman Begins (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan

review by Christopher Geary

There appears to have been some grumbling among comicbook fans about how much this movie, effectively a prequel to Warners' existing Bat franchise (launched back in 1989 with Tim Burton's monstrously flawed Batman, starring Michael Keaton), draws upon Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns characterisation of the 'caped crusader', without crediting the authority of that revisionist version. But I think the value of Miller's influence has been grossly overstated. The only important screen credit that's deserved by, and prominently given to, a writer not directly connected with this cinema offering is that of Bob Kane. Creativity is not the same thing as originality. Batman's genre lineage has been traced elsewhere. I'd rather not get into nitpicking. The fact is that Christopher Nolan's laudable, and exceptionally 'practical', action drama rejects the peculiar daftness of superhero adventures, centring its generally downbeat narrative on a shrewd exploration of the psychological depths of its title character's mortal fears, and lingering guilt (the young Bruce Wayne blames himself for the death of his parents), twisted into an unhealthy obsession with revenge.

Christian Bale (American Psycho, Reign Of Fire, Equilibrium, The Machinist) brilliantly portrays the adult Bruce Wayne as a tragically haunted heir, embarking on a fiercely existential journey into the mountains of China, after finding himself unable to remain in Gotham with painful memories. Bruce's spiritual attempt to expose and fully comprehend the workings of the criminal psyche is equally a bitter struggle to understand his own nature, and find new purpose and meaning in life. Rarely have the motivations for a costumed crime-fighter to wear a disguise been so examined or well illustrated in a Hollywood product. Bravely, the director and star allow us to peer 'behind the mask' - even while Batman is wearing it - and Batman Begins offers an exemplary deconstruction of superhero cinema that's unmatched by the likes of The Punisher (either version), or the over-flashy Daredevil, and certainly far more illuminating in terms of solid characterisation than Raimi's over-praised Spider-Man flicks.
walking with rodents, in Batman Begins
Tutored in various martial arts by stony-faced guru Ducard (Liam Neeson - much better here, as a mentor figure, than in his dismal Star Wars episode), but refusing to agree with the coldly extreme policy of elitism openly espoused by the well intentioned but fascistic League of Shadows, Bruce Wayne confronts ninja death squads and strives to formulate his own philosophy of justice suitable for maintaining order in the grimy hell of Gotham's underworld. He's aided by the righteous cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, in a surprisingly restrained, yet nonetheless magnetic performance) - obviously the beleaguered city's future police commissioner, and the pioneering industrial scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, wry as ever), an admirably Q-like techie, while Bruce's childhood sweetheart Rachel (Katie Holmes, who also played a Rachel in Disturbing Behaviour, 1998), now a District Attorney in Gotham, tries to provide the disillusioned avenger with moral guidance, and (thankfully platonic) love interest.

Neeson brings much needed weight to the early scenes, as Nolan's nonlinear storytelling format (which worked so perfectly in Memento), switching between Bruce's childhood traumas and mental vacuity as an adult, threatens to derail the main plot before the intriguing narrative takes hold. Michael Caine makes for a splendid butler, and his aged Alfred is one of the thespian highlights of this film. The secondary villain of the piece is deranged headshrinker Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes the Scarecrow, armed with a potent hallucinogenic gas to confuse and terrify his opponents. Apart from Batman's ninja tactics, The Scarecrow's actions help to provide the film with its best, and most inspired, moments of eerie gothic horror. Yet even the film's shocks and frights are understated. This is in keeping with Nolan's familiar directorial style, as used to good effect in his remake of mystery thriller Insomnia. Batman the superhero is presented as a nearly mythic symbol of fear that's just as scary as the gangsters, hoodlums and psychos he sets out to destroy. In the wretched slums and perilous alleyways of Gotham, the hero is out to make sure everyone is afraid of walking the streets at night!

If Batman Begins has an easily identifiable, yet non-fatal, flaw it's the female lead. Although she's certainly very pretty, Holmes is frankly a weak actress (a graduate from TV's Dawson's Creek) and unfortunately seems too young for her role here (Bale is almost five years her senior). Holmes is sadly unconvincing as both a 'legal eagle' prosecutor, and as the supportive 'old flame' advising the morally embattled hero. I think the dispensing of wisdom should have been left entirely to Alfred and Lucius. After all, Caine and Freeman are the only supporting players with sufficient gravitas to offer believable counsel to the hero when he's found himself tricked by fate, stymied by events, and then betrayed by his own conscience. When cute Ms Holmes suggests that Bruce should stop fooling around in his wealthy playboy guise and get his act together, her comment merely sounds like a clever quip, a typical line of movie dialogue, one lacking in dramatic impact and entirely bereft of significance.
Bat mobile in Batman Begins
Surely one of the finest comicbook adaptations of the current cycle, Batman Begins delivers exciting chases, impressive widescreen spectacle (see this in the cinema to enjoy the extraordinary detailing of Gotham's cityscapes) and plenty of assured character development. If nothing else, when you see the rugged new bat-mobile hit the streets, you will chortle at Gordon's reaction: "I gotta get me one of those!"
Batman Begins

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