The franchise that was successfully squandered by a well known director (see Joel Schumacher) gets a well-deserved reboot in this origin story. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), and written by David S. Goyer (Blade, Dark City), this film is a prequel that sets up all adventures to come. Darker, more violent, even scarier than any of Tim Burton’s noble early films, Batman Begins is a return to stylish, sensible comic-book adaptations. No flash, no rubber nipples, no awful one-lines (anyone remembers Mr. Freeze?)
Usually I review movies and point out the inconsistencies, flaws and downright insults that some of today’s films fling in their audience’s faces. This time, I’m afraid it’s going to be all praise. No, I’m not schilling for a studio (unlike many movie reviewers online these days). I have seen the film, will see it again, and would recommend people to go and see it. And guess what – in a few months when it comes out on DVD, I will snap a few copies – for myself, and a few like-minded people. The movie is great – by itself, and as a reboot of a once-popular franchise. It works for people who are just looking for an action flick, and it also satisfies die-hard fans who have the comic-books memorized start to finish.
Where do I begin? The cast? The score? The gadgets? The villains? Perhaps the visuals – I did see it on a gigantic IMAX theater, so that’s a bonus right from the start. I guess there’s no point in picking a favourite aspect of this experience, might as well blurb praise at random. The cast is superb. Michael Caine takes over for Alfred effortlessly – his heavy (for North-American ears) accent, and bright, energetic eyes are bringing life into a faithful butler. Not only that, his role is that of a mentor to Batman, and that’s a welcome improvement. Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes (an attorney) and is an exceptional damsel in distress. Just the other day I wrote about Star Wars – Padme spends way too much time looking lustfully into the sunset, shedding tears for Anakin; she doesn’t kick butt enough, and doesn’t jump into the battles, like Leia did. Well, in Batman the female lead can be vulnerable (when she’s attacked by Scarecrow, for instance), but she can also be a good reliable ally – when bringing down criminals along with Batman, getting through the bureaucratic junk that consumed Gotham city; running to the right people for right advice. This is a female character written well – a combination of strengths and weaknesses that goes beyond a cardboard cutout.
In fact, I cannot remember flagging any of the main characters as cutouts when I saw the movie. The mafia boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) has a monologue in front of young, lost Bruce Wayne that establishes him as a powerful, corrupt to the bone, and uncompromising … businessman. Everything can be bought in his world, and he strives to accomplish exactly that. This is an absolute, not realistic, but it works in Batman’s universe. Other absolutes come into play – when Bruce is training in far east with Ducard (Liam Neeson) under the watch of Ras Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) he keeps hearing about the all-consuming power of fear. He who conquers his own fears can pray on those who are afraid. It’s platitudes like that which make a legend, a classic movie. Quotable, memorable, and delivered with a straight face. Thanks, Liam.
To cover the entire principal cast would take too much time, let’s just say that there are no unused actors, and no wasted opportunities to either develop characters or to propel the story. When Batman finally appears on the screen one hour into the movie (well, it IS an origin movie, after all), the pieces are still being set up for the final showdown. The roles are handed out – we get Gary Oldman as a young commissioner Jim Gordon – probably the only honest cop left in Gotham city. We get Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox – the gadget guy. And we get a fleshed out hero – with his guilt of parents’ death, his sorrow for a rotting hometown, and his seething anger towards the criminals taking over the place where he grew up. This would be more than enough motivation to propel a dozen movies, but Batman Begins adds a few more twists – Bruce Wayne’s double life is not as easy as it was portrayed by Val Kilmer and George Clooney. His love life and social circles are full of surprises, so it’s not just crimefighting. Again, a bonus from the writers – to create believable universe.
The score and camera work very well together – fights are shot quickly, sometimes in flashbacks; the bat appears out of the corner of the screen, disappears quickly, startling both the audience and the evildoers. We don’t want to see the martial arts and the craft of Batman’s fighting techniques again and again. It was shown once during training, so that the rest of the movie he can jump out of the screen, floor a few goons and disappear in split second. This is how it should be. No details – better thrills. Even the chases are shot in a broken-up way – difficult to follow which car was just shown, who’s chasing, and who’s running away. We’re too busy following the action to start analyzing and admiring the driving skill. It’s all about the getaway. The movie loses itself in action scenes, letting them happen without annoying closeups or slow-downs. If you miss it, it’s gone, we don’t care if you didn’t get a good look at that side of the car.
The gadgets on the other hand are explained, even with some scientific background. Lucius Fox gives plenty info that establishes that (in this universe) the belt would be strong enough to hold two people (there was a good joke about it in the original Batman movie). Even the famous Batmobile is introduced as a bulky, but surprisingly quick hummer/ferrari cross that just happens to do what’s needed. It’s not the slick low-sitting vehicle we’re used to seeing in Batman movies, but I can totally see it break through walls. Substance over style, guys.
The villains? Well, to talk about them would force me to spoil the fun. Suffice to say that not everyone is who s/he seems at first, and that a sequel is established in a sly closing shot. What I liked about the villains in this movie was how different they were – not all maniacal, antisocial evil geniuses. Some have become evil in their ways – others have been forced into that realm by Gotham, or even by Batman himself (do you remember how Jack Nicholson’s Joker came to exist?) They are not born evil, some of them are quite content people at first, and throughout the story, their motivations and methods turn sour. Again, I admired that the writers took time to develop these characters instead of just lowering them from the top of the screen, giggling and rubbing their hands. That would be a cheap way out.
As I said at the beginning, the movie will definitely entertain a newbie (you don’t have to know Jack about Batman universe – everything is established from the start). And, it seems they got their source material right, without veering far from the original characters in the comic books. The movie is nowhere near the camp level of Schumacher films, and doesn’t have a hit single from Seal or U2. It has scary moments (no blood), deals with ruthlessness of evil people. But it all works in the realm of Batman, and is just fun to watch. When was the last time you had goosebumps in a movie theater?
See it today, and if you disagree with my heartfelt recommendation, just post your comments below or on the forums. I dare you to dislike this movie.