Christian Bale discovers the power of flight as ‘Batman Begins.’
Starring Christian Bale. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Rated PG-13.
Needles and pins, needles and pins. When Gotham’s in trouble, Batman Begins.
By KRISTIAN LIN
We all know the story. I don’t mean the story of Batman the character. I mean the story of how Tim Burton got the Batman franchise off to a roaring start with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), then abandoned ship, in favor of Joel Schumacher, whose decision to treat the material as camp resulted in the disastrous Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). Now in Batman Begins, the brainy British-American director Christopher Nolan takes the wheel and returns the series to its serious roots. He deserves much credit for re-imagining the saga on his own terms, and his movie is good enough to make you wish it had been better.
When we first see billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), he’s languishing in an Asian prison camp. Just as you’re starting to think you’ve wandered into the wrong movie, Bruce is contacted by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, doing a neat little twist on his usual wise old mentor role), a shadowy gentleman who springs him from jail and trains him to be a warrior who’ll purge the perpetrators of injustice from his hometown of Gotham, driven by having witnessed the murder of his parents as a small boy.
Better than any of the previous Batman movies, this one grasps the idea that the Dark Knight is a badass who doesn’t just catch criminals but terrorizes them as part of a strategy to create paranoia among them. The film’s concern with the uses and the dangers of fear makes a satisfyingly resonant, dark subtext. It also allows Bale (aided by some electronic amplification of his voice) to show off a snarling, feral side when Batman intimidates bad guys into giving up vital information.
Too bad, then, that he doesn’t show the same spirit when he’s out of the costume. This Welsh actor with a peculiar aptitude for playing snotty rich Americans isn’t one for portraying tortured, angst-ridden types. In the scenes where Bruce tries to woo his childhood sweetheart-turned-assistant D.A. (Katie Holmes, looking for once like a young woman instead of a schoolgirl), Bale looks like he’s biting down on a lemon wedge instead of someone who’s cut off from human affection by his calling.
That solitude is what’s tragic about Batman, something that Burton’s films brought home to wrenching effect, especially Batman Returns. Nolan and co-writer David Goyer don’t find any such emotional power here, nor do they contribute any of the perverse humor that the franchise lends itself to. The only glimmer of the latter quality radiates entirely from Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who has a ball playing Dr. Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. The Scarecrow, as a smugly grinning, pencil-necked geek.
Nolan did magnificent work capturing the L.A. cheap-motel ambience in Memento and the Alaskan wilderness’ intimidating beauty in Insomnia. Working in a fantasy world where his imagination can run free, however, does him no favors. The darkness that envelops Gotham is merely a mannerism. It has no menace, not like the sharp, high-contrast, film-noir blackness that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller brought to Sin City. (Those guys would have done better with this movie, especially with Miller’s experience in turning out some well-regarded Batman comics.)
Making matters worse, action sequences prove to be Nolan’s directorial Achilles heel. He can do a decent chase, but if you remember how he made hash out of the fight scene near the end of Insomnia, well, get ready for many more of those. Like a hack director, he substitutes rapid cutting for movement and loses spatial coherence — you can’t tell who’s being hit or where they are. You could argue that this is appropriate, since Batman operates by stealth, sowing confusion and striking his enemies where they can’t see him. Still, the overcutting is too prevalent to be a conscious strategy. Nolan’s such a cerebral filmmaker, he doesn’t have much flair for the medium’s kinetic potential.
For all of these flaws, the movie’s pretty watchable, covering a great deal of ground in a well-paced 140 minutes, and it has one genuinely thrilling moment, when Bruce stands in the middle of what will become the Batcave, his eyes closed in rapture while flying bats boil around him. The actors help, too — Michael Caine plays Bruce’s loyal butler Alfred, and there’s something beautiful and moving about the dignity and empathy in his posture when he comforts a weeping little Bruce (Gus Lewis) in the aftermath of the Waynes’ deaths. He’s delightful, too, when Alfred advises the grown-up Bruce about being Batman. Counseling him to deflect suspicion of his secret identity by maintaining the façade of a large-living playboy, Alfred says, “Who knows, Master Wayne? If you pretend to have fun long enough, you may find yourself actually having some by accident.” If only Nolan had followed that advice a bit more, maybe the accomplished but overly serious Batman Begins would feel more like an involving story and less like a monument.
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