After two campy and poorly written Joel Schumacher sequels (a Batsuit with nipples?) and French director Pitof's purr-fectly stupid spinoff "Catwoman," the Batman franchise has returned to its dark, moody, action-adventure roots.
Rated: PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements.
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson.
Director: Christopher Nolan.
"Batman Begins" takes a logical leap backward, mirroring the early, edgy "Batman: Year One" stories and filling in some of the continuity gaps that have persisted since the character was born in Detective Comics No. 27 in May 1939. Director Christopher Nolan embraces the dark nuance of the original Tim Burton "Batman" films but presents a less stylized vision and emphasizes the action in a gritty action-adventure oozing with celebrity charm.
Christian Bale, who began his career as the precocious kid from Steven Spielberg's epic "Empire of the Sun," has matured into an intense actor unafraid of embracing the physicality of his roles. Last year, in the creepy speculative-fiction film "The Machinist," Bale dropped 80 pounds to illustrate his character's dangerously emaciated state. This year, he bulked back to his natural weight, adding 30 pounds of sculpted musculature to play the toughest Bruce Wayne/Batman ever filmed.
In a movie that's about obsession, nearly all of Nolan's characters are blinded by a self-induced tunnel vision that obscures all but the goals they're willing to fight and die for. Batman is surrounded by allies obsessed with helping him (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman) and villains obsessed with killing him (Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy).
Of all the popular comic book heroes, Batman is the only one without super powers. Armed with only the strength of his convictions, ingenuity and immense family wealth, Bruce Wayne strains the pervasive and powerful underworld that's destroying Gotham City. There's another way to look at Wayne: He's nuts -- psychotically obsessed with destroying the criminal culture that murdered his parents in front of him when he was a child. He taps the family's fortune to create the implements of their destruction, and his creepy alter-ego protects his high-profile identity and creates a mythology that frightens the fearless criminals.
Screenwriters Nolan and David S. Goyer, a comic book writer who moonlighted as creator of the "Blade" film trilogy, understand both perceptions of Wayne and keep the character in the gray area between.
"Batman Begins" starts in a Third World prison where a pathetic figure is taking a whopping from his criminal tormentors. As he begins to fight back, he's approached by a well-dressed executive who offers him a chance to get out of jail.
Liam Neeson is strong in a complicated role as one of Wayne's three mentors. Part of a secretive vigilante organization that has been busting bad-guy butt for centuries, he recruits Wayne to help clean up Gotham City, teaching him the ninja tricks that will later give Batman his edge and adding new back story to the 66-year-old Batman mythology.
A series of flashbacks reprises the origin of young Wayne's pathological fear of winged mammals and the murder of his parents and establishes the firm bond between Master Bruce and the family butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Caine squeezes every possible drop of drama out of the stately, restrained character and is surprisingly decisive in a key action scene.
Freeman has a lesser role as the equivalent of the Bond series' Q, the guy at Wayne Enterprises who hooks him up with all the Bat-gadgets, including a hot new Batmobile with military assault capabilities. Oldman plays it straight in a nice-guy role as Batman's policeman ally.
Katie Holmes adds a new character to the Batman universe. She's charming but underwhelming as a driven assistant district attorney hell-bent on prosecuting Gotham's crime bosses. The daughter of a Wayne Manor servant, she's Bruce's lifelong platonic friend and helps the audience to understand nuances of his twisted psychology.
The villains in "Batman Begins" are more human than some of their film predecessors, including a tough crime boss (Wilkinson), a drug-addled psychopath (Murphy) and a ninja warrior (Ken Watanabe). That's probably intentional. Nolan understands that Wayne's greatest adversary is Batman and the twisted psychoses that created him.
John Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1991.