Batman fans treat their hero with great reverence and they know what they want: a film that remains true to the grim spirit of Frank Miller's landmark graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Based on audience reactions at a recent screening, it appears that Batman Begins, a back-to-the-basics epic from Memento director Christopher Nolan, has captured the spirit. The movie spends a lot of time on the nuts and bolts of being a masked hero - the physical and mental training, the creation of the various nifty gadgets that go in a utility belt, that sort of business - before introducing the whacked-out villain du jour. And make no mistake, this time our knight remains very, very dark.
Christian Bale as Batman and Katie Holmes and Rachel Dawes
While the hard-core fans celebrate, the rest of you will have to decide whether a somber, shadowy tour of the underbelly of humanity is your cup of tea. I respect Christopher Nolan and appreciate Batman Begins, though I probably wouldn't sit through it a second time.
Certainly, there is much to admire. Check out Gotham City, which gets a retro-futuristic makeover with plenty of grit to counterbalance the gleam. The humanity front and center approach worked: I enjoyed seeing the Batman-in-training discover that it takes practice to be able to leap from one fire escape to the next whilst wearing a heavy battle suit.
The film also boasts numerous good performances. Christian Bale makes an effective Batman, though he seems more comfortable as billionaire Bruce Wayne, who at least smiles occasionally. Morgan Freeman adds warmth as Lucius Fox, the Q for Wayne Industries. Michael Caine, meanwhile, steals scenes as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's diligent, good-humored butler, mentor and parental figure.
Liam Neeson offers authoritative support as instructor/guru Henri Ducard, as does Ken Watanabe, who plays Ra's al Ghul, the stoic leader of the League of Shadows. Cillian Murphy from 28 Days Later is surprisingly young and fresh-faced to be cast as a villain, but he contributes an enjoyable, giddily twisted turn as Scarecrow. Gary Oldman underplays as Lt. Jim Gordon, while Rutger Hauer is his usual smiling, nasty self as Wayne Industries snake-in-the-grass Richard Earle.
Pity poor Katie Holmes, who portrays Rachel Dawes, assistant D.A., chiding moralist and obligatory love interest. Holmes (who, according to a recent afternoon talk show, is WONDERFUL, FANTASTIC, AMAZING, SWEET, SEXY, BEAUTIFUL AND THE BEST GIRLFRIEND IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!!!!!!!) does perfectly fine work, but her character's scenes feel tacked on, a counterbalance to all the testosterone rather than an organic part of the main storyline.
Let's talk about that storyline. The film basically breaks into three roughly even sections: the training of Bruce Wayne, the development and refinement of Batman, and episode one in the adventures of the young dark knight. The last two segments are messy but more or less successful. Fans will probably appreciate the first segment, a mishmash of martial arts and philosophy, but I found it terribly dull.
The biggest problem with the movie is its approach to the action scenes. Again and again, we are presented with fights that consist of quick-cut close-ups of figures in darkness. After spending so much time on the look of the film, why did Christopher Nolan and company choose to present visually incomprehensible action scenes?
One last quibble: It is clearly established that Batman does not kill. But later we see the caped crusader, during a high speed car chase with the cops, throw objects at the police cruisers that cause the vehicles to flip over repeatedly. We know what often happens to people in vehicles that flip over repeatedly, so why doesn't Batman?
Still and all, Batman Begins presents a gripping look at the human side of a legendary figure. Those willing to forgive the weak points should have a fine time brooding along with Bruce.