Friday, October 07, 2005

Film Review - Batman Begins

Not since the days of the original Batman feature film adaptation back in 1989 have fans of the Cape Crusader experienced such elation with the venerable franchise on the big screen. Burton’s follow-up to the perennial favorite entitled Batman Returns failed in many respects to live up to the expectations that had been set down for it. Maybe too much had been demanded of it to live up to the greatness of the original or two major villains in one picture was bit much for audiences to handle. Whatever the reason may be the Batman franchise was never the same from that moment on. When Burton dropped out, director Joel Schumacher stepped in and grabbed the reins of the franchise. And in spite of Batman Forever’s success, grossing twelve million more in domestic box office receipts then the previous installment, fan fervor over Schumacher’s neon obsession began to boil over and came to head with the introduction of the ‘nipple suit’ featuring George Clooney, easily the worse portrayal of Batman in the entire series. Director Christopher Nolan, the man behind the critically acclaimed Memento and Insomnia, now returns fans to where the legend began to return the Dark Knight to his beloved glory.

The story for Batman Begins strays drastically from the direction in which past franchise pictures have been forced toward which, thankfully, is a good thing in this instance. Batman Begins harkens back to the gritty atmosphere that was so abundant in Tim Burton’s original adaptation and even proceeds to take audiences one step further. Though dark in tone, Burton’s Batman remained set in the realm of fantasy which, in its own right, was fine at the time but Christopher Nolan makes the Dark Knight real, which in effect strikes a stronger tone with audiences. Knowing that the Cape Crusader is made of flesh and blood, that he can be knocked down or burnt to a crisp and left for dead like the rest of us and yet get up and continue the fight to win the day makes him a far more captivating mythological figure then if he were invincible.

Christian Bale, a rising performer who to the surprise of many has been in the movie industry for several years now, has at long last come into his own in the role of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne which is merely an alter-ego for the Dark Knight who battles crime and injustice on the streets of Gothem when the sun sets. Bale is nothing short of remarkable in his portrayal of Bruce Wayan/Batman, a more realistic and gothic interpretation of the duo-role character then modern audiences, plagued with the nightmarish images of neon splattered Schumacher monstrosities long since past, are not accustomed to, even those who are old enough to recall accurately Tim Burton’s adaptation of the Cape Crusader in the late-1980s. Bruce Wayne is an inordinately conflicted man, battling not only the crime lords and the gangsters for the streets of Gothem City but also with his alter-ego, Batman, for control of his personal life and even with himself for the direction in which his life after his parents’ deaths is to proceed and in what capacity. Bale, like Maguire in the Spider-Man franchise, proves effectively, both through heart-wrenching emotions and body language, that the life of a superhero is not what it is cracked up to be in popular mythology.

Liam Neeson is positively impeccable as Ducard, the mysterious and often deceivable assistant to Ra’s Al Ghul who tracks down Bruce Wayne so that he may train him in the ways of the League of Shadows in order to overcome his fears and enact justice on the city of Gothem. Though he undoubtedly has the talent capacity to successfully pull off a performance like this one, it remains a bit unnerving, at least for some, to see him in a role as this, especially after his powerful role in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning film, Schindler’s List. Ducard is the type of character who presents a truly emotional roller coaster attraction for his audience. He clearly has the right intentions in mind, wanting to combat injustice and stave off evil, but as Bruce Wayne discovers he takes his dedication to preserving justice to an unhealthy level in which the ‘heroes’ are almost as bad as the villains themselves. Just as you grasp the concept he is advocating he goes and says something that touches a moral nerve. Easily the most diabolical villain in the Batman film franchise to date.

Alight, putting it as concisely and politely as is possible, Katie Holmes’ performance as the persistent and slightly perky (some of you may have noticed this, particularly near the end of the film) assistant district attorney Rachael Dawes is not exactly as prestigious as her baby’s daddy Tom Cruise built it up to be but neither was it as disasterous as it certainly could have been, especially given her track record of ‘distinguishable’ film projects. The romantic aspect of the storyline between her and the Cape Crusader’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne, though undeniably evident from the beginning, is quite possibly the most downplayed of the Batman franchise which to say is not a bad thing given that its audience cares more about the story and the action then anything else, particularly romance. All in all, Miss Holmes, the soon to be Mrs. Cruise, will not be missed terribly given she was the only cast member not to be picked up for the upcoming sequel, likely to the fallout caused by her relationship with Tom Cruise. But it is tradition, in much the same vein as the James Bond franchise, for the Batman films to interchange the love interest of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to keep things flowing, so for fans this will be use to this.

Two villains which fixture prominently into the Batman Begins storyline appear to be quite underutilized, at least from first glance. These would be Dr. Jonathan Crane, more commonly referred to as the Scarecrow, played fiendishly by Cilian Murphy and Ra’s Al Ghul, a stylized performance commanded by Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe. However, it would seem as though Crane is used merely as a distraction, and the same can be said of Ken Watanabe’s character as well, and was never meant to be used to his full capacity in this chapter of the Batman saga. Given that he was never officially captured at the end of the film, the Scarecrow may play a part in pictures to come, with two sequels already in the works with Nolan at the helm, but with The Joker clearly being the featured villain in the second movie, it doesn’t seem likely however.

The always entertaining British actor Michael Caine brings to the role of Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred a style that is all his own. For the first time Alfred is not exclusively viewed as only Bruce Wayne’s dear friend and close confidante but also the lone father figure following the deaths of his parents. Gary Oldman scores a home run performance in the role of Sergeant Jim Gordon. Fans of the Dark Knight will certainly be taken back a bit by the lackluster appearance and stammer of Jim Gordon, clearly noting how far he has come from when the comic book superhero’s story began. Those unfamiliar with the Batman legend or the feature film franchise will view Gordon, the only good egg in the bunch as far as the police force in Gothem is concerned, as a pathetic sap, in spite of his willingness and moral standings, which only increases the audience’s anguish for the prospects of the city. Though Morgan Freeman is delightful as Lucius Fox, he is not seen in quite the capacity audiences may expect, which is a bit disappointing to say the least, but there is hope his character’s role in the Batman legend will expand with the upcoming sequels.

Overall, with Christopher Nolan at the helm, Batman Begins triumphantly returns the Dark Knight to his long begotten former glory in the days of Tim Burton’s original big screen adaptation and even exceeds those expectations by taking the Cape Crusader to a level which he has yet to be experienced before – the real world. True, not everything which takes place in Batman Begins has its basis in reality but the characters and their actions are more intone with our world then in any other film present in the franchise which makes it all the more poignant and insightful. These individuals, these human beings, are easily vulnerable and are not the squeaky-clean heroic figures your parents grew up with. Though Bruce Wayne eventually finds the path of justice which would lead him to become the legendary figure he is seen as today, he contemplated killing his parents’ attacker in cold-blood as he left the courtroom and would have gone through with it if it were not for an assassin sent by the mob boss of Gothem. And in spite of their perceivable evolution in character and spirit as the film progresses towards its climax and beyond, the closing credits of the picture hardly mark the end of their progression, which will continue through the rest of the series undoubtedly. The most frequent complaint likely to materialize from audiences is that there is not enough action within the storyline to make this film as interesting in terms of overall scope as other pictures in the franchise. There is a reason the film is called BatmanBegins’. Starting from scratch, Christopher Nolan must develop these characters from the ground up and, through the process of a few sequels in the near future, make them into the mythological figures we have come to cherish. We can only hope, not expect it if history has taught us anything, that the integrity of this new chapter in the Batman film franchise will remain intact as the series continues and not deteriorate in light of its public and critical success. Additional commendation must be given to Christopher Nolan and his screenplay for showcasing capitalism and the free-market in a positive light, quite a rare feat in the left-wing socialist-obsessed Hollywood that is known today.

My Rating: ***** out of 5 (Grade: A+)

Be Sure to Check It Out at the Varsity Theatre This Evening at 8pm