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Batman Begins
2005 - PG-13 - 140 Mins.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producer: Larry J. Franco, Charles Roven and Emma Thomas
Written By: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy and Gary Oldman
Review by: John Ulmer
Official Site: www.batmanbegins.com
   

The Dark Knight just got a whole lot darker.
“Batman Begins” is all about a man who battles his enemies and inner demons. It’s about fear, acceptance, morality and reality: Batman is not a superhero. He doesn’t have extraordinary powers. He’s human, physically and emotionally.

Bruce Wayne is a fascist at heart – but has enough moral fiber to resist devolving into an executioner. “That is the only thing that separates us from them,” Bruce says in “Batman Begins.” And that’s something that the film latches on to – amongst other topics – and what makes it not only the best of the “Batman” movies, but also a great film by any standard.

Christopher Nolan, the British filmmaker who bent all the rules in 2000 with the nonlinear and mind-boggling masterpiece “Memento”, directed “Batman Begins.” When news first broke, many message boards churned with disgruntled fans claiming he was “selling out” by helming this project. What Nolan has actually done is take a severely over-bloated, seemingly unredeemable series of films and completely reformed them; “Batman Begins” opens with digital bats encompassing the screen, which is important, because otherwise countless cinemagoers would be sitting awestruck for sixty minutes, wondering whether they’ve walked into the wrong film.

“Begins” opens somewhere in Asia. Bruce has voluntarily become a prisoner in order to research the lives of criminals. When he is visited by a mysterious guru named Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is freed from jail and becomes Ducard’s protégé. Ducard is a member of the League of Shadows, an ancient ninja brotherhood bent on the destruction of all evil and wrongdoing. Of course, their methods are flawed. Bruce flees back to Gotham City after refusing to murder a rapist on Ducard’s command. He invests stock in his father’s old company, Wayne Corp., and uses the underground lab of the facility to “borrow” high-tech military weaponry.

Bruce and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), hide the equipment underneath the Wayne Estate in a creepy old bat cave. Bruce takes on the persona of Batman and begins to fight crime under the watchful eye of the corrupt city.

Gotham’s only honest cop, Sgt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), who comforted Bruce as a child after his parents died, is the only person who believes Batman means well – others think he is a sadistic criminal, especially after a famous mob boss (Tom Wilkinson) is found pinned to a skylight, his drug-smuggling thugs all left unconscious.

Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) meanwhile finds reason to believe that the city’s resident psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), may be involved in a scheme to harm Gotham with the help of an outsider – she is subsequently put on a hit list and Batman, who learns the truth, races against time to save her. (Oh, yeah, she was Bruce’s childhood friend, too; which is more a convenience than a coincidence.)

I admire the technical skill of this production. The fight scenes are fast and blurred – I usually hate this, but it works well in “Batman Begins,” because we’re meant to fear the unknown. Sounds are used to great effect. Cinematically, Batman becomes a movie monster on occasion – the scene where a group of smugglers are picked off one-by-one in the darkness, with scattering sounds overhead and screams and gunshots piercing the silence, brings to mind Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” In another segment, Batman questions Crane while he is on drugs, which results in some truly terrifying images that will shock children who are familiar with Batman as a flawless hero.

I also like the fact that Nolan – who admittedly does not prefer using modern special effects – bases his film around the characters so much indeed that he uses very little CGI. Apart from a few action sequences and swarms of bats, most of “Batman Begins” is real, and that really impressed me. (I do not like modern effects, either.) I could tell the city was real, I could tell the Batmobile was real, and I could tell Batman was real. Remember the segment in “Batman and Robin” where they surf 30,000 feet above ground on pieces of an exploding rocket ship and look like cartoon characters? There’s none of that crap here.

The script is by David Goyer, who co-wrote the visionary “Dark City.” That film was heavily influenced by German expressionism – it moved quickly, awkwardly, with scenes interrupting other scenes out of the blue.

“Batman Begins” is formed on a similar scale. During action sequences, it’s not rare to suddenly see other characters, far away, in the middle of a discussion, before cutting back to the action. I would usually detest this, because in most American films it’s a sign of poor editing, sloppy writing or bad direction; but I think it works here – not because it’s a comic book movie like “Sin City,” but because it’s just the style of the film itself. Complemented by the fast editing and Nolan’s impressive direction, “Batman Begins” walks the fine line between pretentiousness and sloppiness – it is artsy and careful, clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, but the edits and fight sequences are clearly inspired.

Bale is perfect as Batman, and the best yet, because he fits every aspect of the character; he is believable as a smug, ruthless playboy. We can see him as a troubled young man haunted by his past and an unbearable sense of guilt. And in the suit, he looks confident without being comfortable – he’s still learning how to adapt. We can imagine how far he will progress in the sequels when, at the end of “Begins,” he has finally become the Batman we all know.

The rest of the cast range from above average to very good: Michael Caine is fun as Alfred; Katie Holmes is surprisingly better than expected, Gary Oldman is great whilst Morgan Freeman and Rutger Hauer are pushed aside somewhat, serving little purpose. Liam Neeson is somewhere in between.

The movie is grim like Burton’s but more realistic, and not as glossy and perfect; the suit is imperfect, Batman’s technology and secrets are exposed, the Batmobile is ugly and efficient, and the bat cave was originally part of the underground railroad and doesn’t have any gadgets or special super-duper display cases for the suits. (I never did understand the point of encasing the Bat Suit in a special shiny glass container when no one was supposed to even see it except Bruce and Alfred.)

In an era when bigger is better, and audiences are used to Batman making his appearance on-screen in mere minutes of each film, “Begins” does something completely unexpected (and risky). It actually takes its time. Bruce Wayne doesn’t don his famous suit and cape for the first hour of the film – and when he finally does, the costume isn’t fantasized. It’s imperfect, awkward and ugly. And best of all, there are no bat-nipples this time. All considered, is it really so surprising that “Batman Begins” has only made a disappointing $71 million in its first week? Audiences are not used to blockbusters of such depth, scale and grandeur. Especially if it has the word "Batman" in its title.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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