Batman Begins
directed by Christopher Nolan
(Warner Brothers, 2005)

Title notwithstanding, Batman is not the focal point of Batman Begins.

Much of the movie focuses on Bruce Wayne before he was Batman, traveling the world seeking knowledge and combat skills, venting his still-fresh rage on the criminal element. There are also rare glimpses of Bruce's youth, both before and after his parents' deaths.

This movie is about building the perfect Batman, and that's not a hasty process but a gradual evolution. Batman doesn't even appear until the second half of the film ... but this focus on the human, not the hero, helps Batman Begins to rise above the level of recent films and set a new standard.

Although Batman Begins reboots the franchise and has no connections to the previous series of Batman films, comparisons are inevitable. The biggest difference is, this Batman is plausible. Both his abilities and accessories seem realistic -- a fit, well-trained and well-equipped person could do what he does. With the money and resources available to Bruce Wayne in this film -- as well as the obsessive need for justice -- a man could really become Batman.

Sure, it's still over the top at times, but heck, this is based on a comic book.

As Batman/Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale is an exceptional choice. While he might not quite carry the dual roles with Michael Keaton's casual skill, Bale easily bests Val Kilmer and George Clooney. A shallow playboy when he needs to be, he slips quickly and easily into brooding confidence, whether or not he's wearing a mask.

Michael Caine as Alfred was a casting coup. He is upright and proper, affectionate and wise, a perfect foil for Bruce's youthful ambition. Another excellent choice was Gary Oldman as a young, competent Sgt. Jim Gordon; for the first time in the movies, they got Gordon right. Additional allies in Batman's quest for justice are Lucius Fox, an inventor of unused military hardware played winningly by Morgan Freeman, and Rachel Dawes, Bruce's childhood chum and an idealistic assistant D.A. played blandly by Katie Holmes.

It's nice to see Batman overshadow the villains in the credits for a change, but that's not to say the bad guys are second rate. Tom Wilkinson is prime thug material as gang leader Carmine Falcone. Cillian Murphy is eerily menacing as Dr. Jonathan Crane, whose experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and a scary face have made him the master of fear known as Scarecrow. Rutger Hauer plays a criminal of another kind, a ruthless boardroom pillager of Wayne Enterprises.

Better still is Liam Neeson as mercenary/assassin Henri Ducard, who takes Wayne under his wing with plans to hone him into a killing juggernaut. He is, in turns, compassionate and cold, unyielding and understanding. Ducard's master, Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), generates quiet menace from behind the scenes.

Gotham, too, is a character, and the city here is corrupt, depressed and desperate. It looks real, unlike previous incarnations, but still boasts dramatic corners, edges and nooks, like a city that fell together with more carelessness than design. The Bat-cave lacks the high-tech polish of later years. The Bat-car is tough, cool and practical.

The scene of the murder of Bruce's parents is excellently done, although substituting an opera (Die Fledermaus) for a Zorro flick on the Waynes' night out was a questionable swerve from accepted tradition.

There are a few sins of omission, with questions that may be answered only by diehard comics fans. For instance, why does Ra's Al Ghul focus his energies on destroying Gotham? Why is Batman so unconcerned about the massive destruction he causes while evading police? On the other hand, there are no nipples on the Bat-suit.

And, for the first time, we are able to understand how the Batman persona helps to create fear among criminals. This is not just some guy in fancy blue tights or form-fitting rubber; this is a vigilante who works best in darkness, and filmmakers rely on the unseen as much as the seen to make their point.

Batman Begins is the movie we've been waiting for. Let's hope the franchise can keep this ball rolling.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 30 July 2005

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