Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Movie Review "Batman Begins" by David Pretty

Hello, Cape n' Cowlers!

Along with Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2, Batman Begins deserves to be included in the top echelon of "best superhero flicks evar". Chris Nolan brings the same meticulous plotting and character development that he exhibited in Memento to the Batman mythos and simultaneously manages to preserve the integrity of the character's origins as well.

Unlike the Tim Burton films, Nolan doesn't treat the genesis of Batman like a dead albatross hanging around his neck.  Quite the opposite, he seems to relish the challenge of prospecting for unexplored territory in this now-familiar story.  What he finds serves as a revelation for the general populace and a geeky treat for fans.

Scads of comic lore is reproduced here with love and respect.  We see young Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) fall into a well, where he's traumatized by a colony of bats.  We see his philanthropist parents gunned down by tweaky street hood Joe Chill.  We watch him turn his back on his inheritance as an adult and walk the earth in a quest to understand the criminal mindset.

After a tough stint in a foreign prison, Bruce seeks out the appropriately mysterious League of Shadows, led by the enigmatic Ra's al Ghul.  There he  falls under the tutelage of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), where he's privy to the strategies and tactics of ninjutsu.  He also learns the value of refashioning his own fear into a weapon to use against criminals.  Unfortunately, he ends up having a teensy disagreement over ethics with the League, burns down their temple and then promptly heads back stateside.         

All of this is fascinating stuff, but it gets even more interesting after he re-acquaints  himself with the workings of Wayne Enterprises.  After running afoul of the morally reprehensible C.E.O. William Earle (Rutger Hauer), Bruce befriends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) the scientific genius who runs his company's research division.  He instantly sees the inventor's amazing designs as the vehicle through which his crime-fighting dreams can become scientific reality.

Now reborn as "The Bat-Man", Bruce challenges a trifecta of villainy in Gotham, including mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the fear-mongering super-villain Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and a  re-incarnated Ra's.  With him are a small handful of stalwart allies, including inscrutable cop James Gordon (Gary Oldman), childhood-friend-turned-District-Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) as well as unflappable family butler/father figure Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine).

Unlike an entire legion of film-makers who came before him, Nolan clearly sees comic-book lore as a goldmine of insight into the human experience and a veritable wellspring of thematic relevance.  He doesn't view these pop culture legends as low-brow concepts that require the talents of a visionary "artiste" to bring the buried nuggets of profundity to the surface.  And that's why he's so beloved by Bat-fans.

Also, unlike Micheal Keaton, Christian Bale is possessed of all the characteristics to make for a perfectly balanced depiction of Batman/Bruce Wayne.  Physically he's prototypical and he certainly has the acting chops to carry off such a challenging dual role.  He's able to complete the character's arc seamlessly, taking Bruce Wayne from righteous youth to determined apprentice to shallow playboy to intimidating enforcer, all with incredible conviction.

A few things hinder his efforts, however.  The over-dramatic gravelly voice while in costume would be considered overdone for Dirty Harry let alone Batman.  The outfit itself  is still a goofy pastiche of matte-colored rubber, glossy mismatched fabric and turned-in cowl ears.  In other words, it still looks like an over-glorified Halloween costume.

Also screenwriters Chris Nolan and David Goyer are guilty of writing some truly cloying self-referential dialogue that the actors are forced to revisit like a touchstone.  There's a slew of these chestnuts in the script including (but not limited to) "Why do we fall?", "You never learned to mind your surroundings", "Didn't you get the memo?" and "It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me".  Look, I'm okay with a call-back to a previous lines for thematic reasons, but when you get a whole host of these things cropping up, the script starts to feel like a cheesy 80's-era Schwarzenegger flick.

The supporting cast is almost uniformly brilliant, particularly Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson and Micheal Caine. Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow is either distractingly deadpan or he's mugging shamelessly, but that just makes his screen time more fun.  As opposed to poor Katie Holmes who just gets left in the dust here.  If you think she's actually passable in this role, just watch Maggie Gyllenhaal playing the same part in The Dark Knight and then try and make that claim again with a straight face.

Despite some minor gripes, this is truly a dream come true for comic book fans and movie-goers alike.  Nolan puts emphasis where it belongs: on the Batman/Bruce Wayne character and all of the psychological underpinnings that along go with it.  Like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Christina Bale is a strong enough presence that we actually enjoy watching his scenes as Bruce Wayne and we aren't left counting the seconds before he's wearing the cape and cowl again.

The film is well-shot and the effects are convincing.  The fight sequences are appropriately vicious, bringing to mind the desperate and nasty train car brawl in From Russia With Love.  Knowing that Batman would have limited mobility in an inflexible rubber suit, Nolan had Bale train in Keysi, an abbreviated fighting style which teaches effective, devastating economy of motion.  It's an amazing thing to watch and once again shows the level of consideration invested in every aspect of the production.

The highest form of praise I can give to Batman Begins is that it managed to ground the once-ghettoized comic book genre in gritty realism while remaining completely faithful to the bountiful source material. The fact that they managed to put the "originality" back into "origins" is a feat unto itself that deserves major plaudits.

         Tilt: up.

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