BATMAN BEGINS directed by Christopher Nolan, with Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy. A Warner Brothers release. 139 minutes. For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Batman Begins should satisfy most comic book fanatics and serious, pimply boys who don't get enough sun. But it's going to lose millions of dollars at the box office.
Dark-hued and earnest, it tells the backstory of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the poor little rich boy who uses his nifty high-tech bat accessories to rid his hometown, Gotham City (here looking a lot like Chicago), of corruption.
Guilt-ridden over the death of his philanthropic parents, he travels to the Far East, where he trains under Henri Ducard, Liam Neeson's fu-manchu-bearded master, and picks up some ninja-like skills from The Last Samurai's Ken Watanabe before returning to Gotham City to sort out his life and kick some villain butt.
Once home, he reunites with family butler Alfred (Michael Caine, at his most subdued) and Wayne Enterprises scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). He also crosses paths with childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an assistant DA who's embroiled in a glorified Law And Order episode involving a mob boss (Tom Wilkinson) and a psychiatrist (Cillian Murphy) who testifies that the mob's criminals are all insane.
Nolan and scriptwriter David Goyer treat the material with the hushed reverence usually reserved for the classics.
They pump up the archetypal hero's quest, including his journey to "find himself" in Asia and his symbolic return (after a significant seven years, no less) to reclaim what's rightfully his. The only episode they skim over is the typical hero's time spent wandering lost in the forest. A plot line about a disillusioned Bruce boozing and whoring isn't fully developed. A shame, because self-destructive Dionysian behaviour is always fun to watch.
Come to think of it, the film's total lack of humour is its biggest flaw and will ensure exponentially diminishing crowds after the inevitable big opening weekend.
The movie works best on a psychological level, preying on our fears about air-borne illnesses, urban crime and senility.
Murphy's evil psychiatrist (we know he's bad because he wears modern, harsh-looking glasses) provides some terrific jolts as the Scarecrow, a villain who renders his victims insane with a mysterious puff of smoke. Murphy's line readings are wacked out and terrifyingly convincing (which bodes well for his stint as another villain in the upcoming Wes Craven spookfest Red-Eye.)
Unlike some previous entries in the Batman franchise, there's no mugging, even from notorious scene-stealer Gary Oldman as a youngish Lieutenant Gordon. Bale, who's packed on more than the 60 pounds he lost for his previous pic, The Machinist, plays the role straight, although in the latter half he curls his lips and lowers his voice for a butch growl, like a kid's impression of Darth Vader.
The film's design comes nowhere near Tim Burton's gothic setting for the first two films, but it's passable, as is Hans Zimmer's pulsating score.
The disorienting timeline should come as no surprise from a director who gave us a jigsaw puzzle called Memento. But it also leaves us with some key questions. What was Bruce's life like after his parents were killed? What prompted him to journey to Asia?
Nolan isn't the best action director. The darkly filmed fight sequences, a repetitive mix of whirring elbows and feet, are so confusing, the director might as well have inserted the TV series' campy "whams" and "zowies."
Which would have added some much-needed comic relief.