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Batman flies high in excellent BEGINS
on June 16, 2005
Since his first dramatic appearance in Detective Comics in 1939, Batman has grown to become a pop-culture icon. From movie serials in the 40's, to a classic campy TV show in the 60's, to a solid animated series in the 90's, fans have thrilled to the super heroics of this unique character. However, as a film franchise, he has brought results that were somewhat less than impressive creatively. While the Tim Burton directed films, BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS were stylish and dark, they also suffered from plot holes you could drive a Batmobile through. Then Joel Schumacher introduced a Day-Glo sensibility to the Dark Knight in BATMAN FOREVER, before drowning the character in ludicrous costumes (a Bat suit with nipples???), pun-filled foes, and whiney sidekicks in the lousy BATMAN & ROBIN. By then, Batman as cinematic property had become a laughingstock. Fortunately, indie film director Christopher Nolan reinvigorates the franchise in glorious form in BATMAN BEGINS, a reboot of the Batman legend that, for the first time, puts the focus squarely on our hero and not on the over-the-top villains of past films. Nolan also bases the film in a strong semblance of reality that allows the audience to not only accept the possibility of the winged vigilante, but embrace it as well.
Most fans already know the story of how wealthy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his parents when they are slain during an attempted robbery, but the movie also tells how he chose the bat as his symbol, as well as the steps needed to become the avenger of the night that he turns into. Disillusioned and frustrated by Gotham City's corrupt judicial system, the young Wayne goes abroad to study the criminal mind. Later, while locked in an Asian prison, Wayne is recruited by the enigmatic Ducard (Liam Neeson), who offers him a path in which to focus his anger and hone his skills. Wayne eventually joins his new mentor as a recruit in the mysterious League of Shadows, headed by the sinister Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Wantanabe). Eventually, Wayne realizes that he cannot follow the League's extreme methods of dispensing justice and returns to Gotham to forge his own way. It soon turns out that Wayne's return is just in time as Gotham falls prey to a fear epidemic engineered by the twisted Dr. Jonathan Crane AKA "the Scarecrow" (Cillian Murphy) and a familiar figure from Wayne's past.
From the top on down, this film is blessed with a solid cast that adds wonderfully to Nolan's vision. As the title hero, Christian Bale blows all other Batman portrayers out of the water with his intense and scary take of the role. This is a Batman that you not only fear, but can relate to as well. In fact, he turns in the definitive performance. Michael Caine adds warmth and humor as Wayne's trusty butler, Alfred. Liam Neeson does a great variation of his usual mentor roles as Ducard, a man with his own surprising secret. As an assistant DA and Wayne's childhood friend, Katie Holmes does a nice job with what is basically a thankless role. Cillian Murphy makes for a perfectly creepy Scarecrow, while Morgan Freeman is solid as usual as the man who provides Batman's wondrous car and gadgets. Gary Oldman is wonderfully cast against type as Jim Gordon, one of Gotham's few honest cops. The scene in which he drives the tank-like Batmobile is a sheer delight.
The screenplay by Nolan and David Goyer (who wrote the BLADE films) is awash with characterization and motivation...something that you don't see in many comic book films as a rule. In fact, you get so engrossed by the proceedings that you almost forget that you are watching a "superhero" film in the first place. The special effects are used to enhance the story and not overpower it, while the set design pictures a Gotham that is a unique cross of Chicago, New York and Hong Kong. If there is a flaw, it lies in some of the fight sequences. Done in close-ups and quick cuts, they can get frustrating for those who want to see more of Batman's fighting style. However, this is very minor since the story never ceases to grasp your attention.
In the end, Nolan and his superb cast and crew succeed in achieving what was once thought impossible: the resurrection of a film franchise that, if not dead, was at least on life support. As a result, Batman is once again flying high and BATMAN BEGINS is a film that I wholeheartedly recommend.