Posted on 8/05/10 05:35 PM
Watching Batman Begins, it didn't feel like it's been 8 years since the last Batman feature...and a decade since the last good one. Other comicbook franchises have started in the vacuum after this series imploded in 1997, but none of them have had the hold on this non-comickbook fan like Batman has. While it's a prequel and essentially a fresh start after the franchise lost its way, it's the fifth Batman film and shows that this series seems to have the opposite law of the Star Trek movies: it's the odd-numbered films that are good and Batman Begins is a winner.
The previous films filled in different parts of Bruce Wayne's past, but Christopher Nolan's film expands upon it quite a bit. Christian Bale is excellent as the young Bruce Wayne, itching to pick a fight, but not sure against who exactly. A mysterious man named Ducard (Liam Neesom) offers to help give him focus through training with the League of Shadows. He leaves the group after a pretty violent difference of philosophical opinion and returns to Gotham City with a plan to clean up the city.
The movie builds from a moody and haunting drama into a moody and haunting action film during the film's second half. Wayne becomes increasingly assured as he shapes an alter-ego. At first, he looks like a thief himself as he dons a ski mask to talk to Sergeant Gordon (Gary Oldman). Since Bruce feels that his fear of bats lead to his parents' deaths, it's interesting that he encases himself within the guise of a bat like it's a punishment he imposes on himself. He even confesses that he wants to make the criminal element of Gotham fear it too. Fear is the major theme of the film as both hero and villain use it for their own ends, making the line between Batman and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) pretty thin.
Gotham City itself is a triumph of production design, special effects and real locations. There are dozens of sets and I was unable to distinguish between real and fake sets. The cinematography is pretty rich. All of the production values seemed to hint at Blade Runner like has been often cited by director Christopher Nolan as an inspiration. The finale set in the Narrows certainly looks like the kind of urban decay we've seen in the best of film noir. Nolan employs much of his trademark non-linear cutting although it doesn't have as much of an emotional impact as in his previous films. A silent moment where Bruce listens to his father's heart is the best moment in the film.
Comicbook films in 2005 are proving to have the best ensemble casts in many years. First Sin City and now Batman Begins. Bale is great as Batman. The deadpan humor is still there, but his Batman can be downright vicious. He has a great supporting cast, most notably Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Michael Caine is more prodding as Alfred than Michael Gough's interpretation of the character. Then again, he did play Alfred after more years of experience with Batman. Oldman is a plain old good guy for the first time in quite awhile and it suits him nicely. Cillian Murphy is perfectly slimy as the Scarecrow. His mask presents the film's down-to-earth approach and it's still quite creepy looking compared to the character's appearance in the animated series.
The action is good...when I could see it. It's one of the big drawbacks to the film. At first, it does make perfect sense as it presents Batman more as an abstract force that no one can really see. But then it gets to be way too much, so much so that sitting here right now I can't remember any one particular move in any of the fight scenes. The train scene and the Batmobile chase were fantastic, but the particular fisticuffs were indistinct. The mood music inherent to a Chris Nolan film is present, but considering it's Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, nothing really stood out until the end credit medley. It might grow on me.
Those were my only quibbles. Batman Begins otherwise is an unqualified success and easily the equal of Burton's first film. This movie had some of the earliest hype I've ever seen on an internet message forum and I was always a bit curious about why. Then again, I always loved Batman Forever, so take this opinion for what it's worth. At least the end product doesn't suffer after the prolonged hype upon arrival. Bring on the sequel.