BATMAN BEGINS: A Retrospective by Joel Copling

Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman
Director: Christopher Nolan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements)
Running Time: 2:21
Release Date: 06/15/05

Eight years after two disastrous attempts by Joel Schumacher to return the series to its comparatively campy cinematic roots following Tim Burton’s darker, far superior spectaculars, co-writer/director Christopher Nolan, popular only for a trio of modest psychological thrillers, attempted to bring the legend of the Caped Crusader to the big screen again by way of, well, a modest psychological thriller that happened to star the Caped Crusader. Batman Begins ultimately does not work as well as Burton’s first take on the character (or, for that matter, his highly underrated sequel), but for a long time, it does. For more than an hour, it establishes a new vision of its titular alter ego in the cape and the cowl that is less important than the man who takes it on as a symbol of mankind’s more vengeful tendencies.

This Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale in a solid performance of both charming swagger and privileged but world-weary vulnerability, is pushed into a troglodytic lifestyle by missing the opportunity to avenge himself upon his parents’ killer. This is where the story finds him: locked in a prison in the Far East, fighting the fellow inmates over food and a bullying power structure. He is approached by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a mysterious man who operates within a league of shadows and offers Bruce the chance to fight injustice by turning fear upon the enemy. Take a rare, blue flower up the mountain on which Ducard and his operatives are located in a monastic combat-training arena, the man says, and Bruce shall get his chance.

Ducard is only the direct subordinate to Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), leader of the shadowy group, and the two train Bruce in many techniques of fighting and domination, both by way of what the flower produces (a hallucinogen that acts as a stimulant) and through the skills of ninjutsu training (which is as much learning about how to master misdirecting one’s opponent as it is about actually fighting him). The lesson turns out to be a far more complicated one than this, driving a wedge between Bruce and the League of Shadows and the former to travel back to his own city of Gotham.

The problem is that the great city, compared by one character to Constantinople and Rome (understandably, given its size in one aerial shot, strikingly captured by cinematographer Wally Pfister), is approaching its second recession in as many years as Bruce has been alive. He’s been pronounced dead after being gone so long, and while some, such as his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes, the weak link among a strong cast), might be celebrating his return, it also rattles cages when he takes upon himself the moniker of the Batman, a vigilante in a thick suit and under a cape who fights the bad guys in a city owned by the mob (Tom Wilkinson plays its chief arbiter, Carmine Falcone, who has most lawmakers and enforcers on his payroll).

The exception is a goodhearted sergeant named Gordon (Gary Oldman in a strong performance), who errs on the side of a masked “vigilante” that brings results to the doorstep of the department; his fellow officers and boss disagree, and public opinion of the Batman sparks debate across the city. The threat, meanwhile, continues to grow as Falcone and a doctor named Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who sends criminals into an insane asylum instead of prison on the orders of a mysterious person above his pay grade, seem to have involvement in a plan to disperse a type of poison into the air within Gotham itself–a poison that heightens fear and drives its victim mad.

Nolan’s screenplay (co-written by David S. Goyer) is best when building up to a finale that feels a bit more familiar and shopworn than what comes before it. Nolan’s staging of action is occasionally impressive, especially when dealing with Bruce’s operation of a variety of gadgets and a tank-like vehicle spray-painted black (provided to him by Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox in a fun montage) and in a finale that challenges the notion of the word “hero.” But what proceeds this is the real deal, a marvel of editing that weaves in and out of multiple time frames with seeming ease and examines the precise, moving steps by which Bruce becomes the Batman. That is the real story of Batman Begins, which is a promising start to a series; the rest is merely what occurs when the Batman is positioned against his first villain.

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