2005, PG-13, 140 min. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 17, 2005
… And it’s about time. Christopher Nolan’s vision of Bob Kane’s seminal hero returns the character to the stripped-down 1939 proto-noir of Detective Comics No. 39, flaying away all but the name and the cowl from the previous big-budget outings by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. This is as close to the Depression-era Bat Man as films have yet ventured, and although Nolan’s Gotham isn’t sporting flivvers and tommy guns – to judge by the art direction, the film takes place in the sort of retro-futuristic metropolis reserved especially for Good, Evil, and assorted Minions – Batman Begins has the denuded color palette of a chiaro-sclerotic nightmare. This Gotham is diseased, afflicted with pathogens ranging from the minor corruption of officialdom to a major influx of villainy in the form of Cillian Murphy’s horrific Scarecrow, who by day is Arkham Asylum’s twitchy and entirely unreliable director, Dr. Jonathan Crane. Nolan’s film is the first to delve deeply into privileged young Bruce Wayne’s radical, deeply Freudian transformation into Batman. As an origin story it succeeds admirably, showing us not only the murder of adolescent Wayne’s parents at the hands of a jittery street thug (as they exit a performance of Die Fledermaus, no less), but the reason for his fear and eventual mastery of those flying mice, and then a tidy, violent, extended sequence that reveals how he got to be such a badass in the first place. (He spent some quality time with Darkman.) Bale is here the fourth Hollywood Batman, after Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney, and his performance, like the whole of the film, is subdued like a muzzled Alsatian eyeing you from the shadows. There’s none of Schumacher’s flashy, annoying quippery, and very little of Burton’s playful, Gothic patina. This Bruce Wayne/Batman is, for better or worse, at home in this particularly benighted Gotham: He’s sick, too, if only in the head. Bale has always been something of a cipher, and whether lopping off body parts in American Psycho or going without sleep in The Machinist, the actor carries with him a quality of unreality that serves him well as Batman. Surrounded by a phalanx of some of the finest actors working today – Caine as trusty Wayne Manor manservant Alfred is particularly fine, as is Freeman’s Lucius Fox, the source for all of Batman’s splendidly utilitarian weaponry – Bale submerges himself in the role and comes up with something between The Shadow and Patrick Bateman on Prozac. It works. Batman Begins is thick with plot, but Nolan’s crisp, economical direction keeps things from getting bogged down in explanatory set-ups (there’s no mistaking, however, that this is the opening salvo in a brand-new Hollywood franchise). It’s great fun, and a terrific relief, to see this iconic crime fighter back on solid thematic ground, and David Goyer’s watertight script is a marvel of the screenwriting craft. It moves with surprising speed (the film is more than two hours long) on slick tracks of economic dialogue punctuated by sudden outbursts of violence. Half the time Batman stalks his criminal quarry unseen, or as a barely glimpsed, utterly ominous shadow; there are echoes of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series, not to mention Metropolis, and the cinematography by Nolan regular Wally Pfister is noir and then some. I’d be remiss not to mention Murphy’s deliciously creepy turn as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow: As far as unhinged medicos go, he rivals Jeffrey Combs’ Herbert West in the always-entertaining Gibbering Looney category. Batman Begins’ only notable stumble is perhaps unavoidable: At times it feels almost too busy with plotting. There’s so much going on, and so much to take in, that it leaves you winded. But that’s origin stories for you. No one ever said setting up a savior would be simple.