Monday, June 27, 2005

Review - Batman Begins

Eight years ago, it seemed the Batman franchise was dead in the water. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (an ominous title if ever I heard one) and Batman and Robin was a one-two punch which knocked all credibility out of the character thanks to Schumacher’s incompetent direction, the increasingly ludicrous design of the Batsuit (moulded nipples anyone?) and poor casting choices which saw the series slide into self-parody. It was all a far cry from the films delivered by Tim Burton, whose Batman and Batman Returns offered a brooding central performance by Michael Keaton, memorable villains, striking production design and Burton’s uniquely twisted sensibility, which papered over many of the cracks in the often weak plots. Unfortunately all his work was systematically dismantled by Schumacher, who turned The Caped Crusader into a laughing stock - where on earth could Batman go from here?

The only logical answer is to go right back to the start. Batman Begins delves into the backstory of Bruce Wayne, showing how the billionaire was affected by the death of his parents and how he confronted his own fear of bats to create his crime-fighting alter ego. This new film is co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who showed enormous potential with the thrillers Following, Memento and Insomnia, and he handles the move to the big-scale event movie with ease. Batman Begins is a dark, gripping and intelligent film, as much a character study as a summer blockbuster, and it is the best Batman film made yet.

We first meet Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) languishing in a Chinese prison, from which he is rescued by a mysterious businessman named Ducard (Liam Neeson). Ducard takes him to a mountaintop temple where he is trained to become part of the ‘League of Shadows’, a group of warriors dedicated to purging the world of decadence and corruption by any means necessary. Bruce begins training and learns to face his fear of bats, a phobia he has had ever since he fell into a cave filled with the creatures as a child, eventually emerging as a finely-tuned fighting machine.

After an altercation with Ducard, Bruce returns to Gotham to find it riddled with crime and teeming with corruption at every level. Crime boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) is running the city, using a corrupt psychologist (Cillian Murphy) to get all his crooks declared insane and out of jail. In fact, it seems there are only two honest characters still fighting the war against crime; Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes) is an idealistic young DA while Officer Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is a world-weary cop who seems resigned to the way things are - until the appearance of a masked avenger gives him hope that Gotham can be saved.

It’s almost an hour into the film before Bruce actually dons his suit for the first time and Nolan uses the time to set the foundations of Bruce’s psychological trauma and carefully fleshes out each of the many characters. Nolan proved himself more than capable at developing a fractured narrative with his clever Memento, and here he handles the numerous flashbacks and plot strands with consummate skill. Once Bale does start to put his new persona together, it is done in a smart and witty way with Morgan Freeman adding a touch of class as Wayne Enterprises’ weapons expert.

Nolan gets quality performances from his imaginatively chosen cast throughout, with Bale excelling in the lead role. It’s nice to see Bale with a bit of meat on his bones after his emaciated appearance in The Machinist and it’s his brilliant performance as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman which sets him above other actors who have taken the role. Bale brings a smoothness and ambiguity to the part and expertly expresses the character’s troubled existence. Also worthy of mention is Michael Caine who is clearly having a ball as the Wayne family’s loyal butler Alfred, and he injects real emotion into his relationship with Bale. Gary Oldman and Liam Neeson are both give the kind of first-rate performances you would expect from these excellent actors, while Cillian Murphy is charismatic and chilling as the villainous Scarecrow, although he isn’t really given enough screen time. In fact the only actors who don’t make a mark are Wilkinson, who is miscast, and Holmes who fails to make her love interest role into anything memorable.

Once Batman hits the streets, Nolan’s lack of experience tells a little with his heavily-edited fight sequences often proving hard to follow and lacking impact. Nolan does stage an effective car chase and exciting climax, but it’s still something he may want to work on before the inevitable sequel. Much more interesting is Nolan’s depiction of the effects of Scarecrow’s fear-inducing drug which is often quite nasty, and the climactic scene when the toxin causes mass hysteria is genuinely chilling. Batman Begins is far darker and more contemplative than the average summer movie and tackles the major themes of fear and revenge with surprising subtlety and thoughtfulness.

Despite its few flaws and the occasional lapses into genre clichés, Batman Begins is an excellent film and a welcome return to form for this character. A smartly written, compelling, adult film which contains quality performances, is mercifully short on CGI, and actually has something to say - who could ask for more from a Summer blockbuster? After Schumacher had seemingly left the series dead and buried, this franchise truly has begun again.