Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan's first venture into the Batman series. This weekend's film will no doubt be a huge success, but that's only because Nolan set the bar so high with his first two entries, and this first one? Still a goodie.
Years since his parents were murdered in a robbery, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still searching for answers; some kind of resolution for his feelings of guilt, fear and desire for vengeance. After traveling the world and even training with a mysterious warrior, Ducard (Liam Neeson), at an isolated monastery in the Himalayas. Returning to impoverished, crime-torn Gotham City, Bruce creates a crime-fighting identity -- Batman -- to help combat the city's problems, using everything from Wayne Enterprises (his deceased father's company) to aid the cause. His impact is immediate, but other more sinister personalities await, including Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) who intends to cripple Gotham like nothing the city's seen before.
The superhero franchise reboot is nothing new recently. Over the last 15 years, Superman, Spiderman and Batman have gotten reboots with a long list of other superheroes getting their own chance at a franchise -- some more successful than others. What sets 'Begin' (and The Dark Knight) apart is a straightforward authentic feel. There is no tongue in cheek, campy angle to the superhero proceedings. That's not a bad thing in the least. Nolan takes what Batman fans know -- Alfred the butler, the Batmobile, the Bat cave, Detective Gordon -- and keeps it on the straight and narrow. The score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is epic without being overdoing it -- listen to the main theme HERE -- and the scale of the story has that epic quality without losing focus on the personal aspect; the characters. Simple you would think, but it's always surprising how many movies forget about that aspect.
What has made these movies so popular though -- for me at least -- is they are dark, dark and DARK. Like I mentioned, many people know Batman through the campy 1960s TV show or even the 1990s franchise ventures which we won't address right now....maybe ever. Unfortunately, the Batman comics are cynical and did I mention, dark? The TV shows and movies never took advantage of that aspect until here. Gotham City has been polluted by crime, poverty and corruption throughout the government (Tom Wilkinson is great in a small part as mobster Carmine Falcone), the city literally being torn apart. In general, Nolan (who also co-wrote the script) doesn't seem interested in any obvious laughs or tongue-in-cheek quality. Bad guys and good guys in a city in squalor. This would obviously get ratcheted up a notch in The Dark Knight, but 'Begins' certainly gets the ball rolling.
Having worked in film and TV since the late 1980s, Christian Bale had been at least a somewhat recognizable name for years. Not surprisingly, this put on the A-list of movie stars. Playing instantly recognizable superheroes tends to do that, huh? I like Bale as an actor, but he makes Bruce Wayne/Batman a likable character from the start. A superhero is one thing, but a tortured superhero? That's money in the bank. He has no super powers -- just a mansion and secret cave full of badass gadgets -- and must rely on his own skills as a fighter when trouble arises. Because of his past though, Bruce blames himself for his parents' death and feels he must do something to right that wrong. Without the humor of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Bale does a great job at putting a new, entertaining spin on a character that just about everyone knows.
Now on the other hand, if you're not a Bale fan, this cast almost certainly has something else to offer you. If there is a better casting job than Michael Caine as Alfred, Bruce's butler at Wayne Manor, I can't think of him. Caine is a professional, and even with his supporting part manages to dominate his scenes, making it look easy in the process. Same goes for Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Wayne Enterprise's resident technological genius. Gary Oldman is limited by screentime as Jim Gordon, one of Gotham's few clean cops, but not surprisingly makes it worthwhile. Neeson as Ducard is a gem in the casting department, Murphy sinister and creepy as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, and Ken Watanabe as mysterious ninja Ra's Al Ghul is only around for a little. Rutger Hauer plays Earle, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises in Bruce's absence, Katie Holmes is Rachel, Bruce's long-time but secret love and an assistant D.A., and Linus Roache plays Thomas Wayne, Bruce's brilliant, philanthropic father in a few quick flashback scenes.
It is a Batman movie though so there is some just assumed badass-ness (real word?) because of the character. The action scenes are brutal and don't feel forced, quick cut without being an indecipherable blur. Fans of Batman will no doubt get a kick out of seeing the reveal of the Bat Signal, of the Batmobile zipping through Gotham, all those little things that help make a good character great. 'Begins' sets the bar pretty high, but not quite high enough. As good as it is, it merely set the stage for The Dark Knight, an instant classic. Just the same, it's a great place to start. And don't forget about that last scene before the credits, featuring a perfect lead-in to the sequel. Superhero origin stories can be tricky, but this one knocks it out of the park.
Batman Begins <---trailer (2005): *** 1/2 /****