Holy reinvention! Unlike previous entries, there's nothing glib or campy about the caped crusader in director Christopher Nolan's ambitious, dark and exhilarating take on a franchise that's been lying dead as a doornail for half a decade. In an attempt to make up for the rubber-nipples-on-the-bat-suit disaster of 1997's Joel Schumacher flop Batman & Robin, the Warner Brothers brass chose to start from scratch, retelling the origin of the superhero from the beginning. The film follows young Bruce Wayne from his wealthy parents' demise to his years of globetrotting and martial-arts training, culminating in his emergence as the relentless defender of Gotham City's tarnished virtue. Stealing a page from rival Marvel Comics, which hit big with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Bryan Singer's X-Men, the brain trust at Warner and DC Comics has enlisted a director with energy and a fresh artistic approach. Nolan won raves with his razor-sharp crime thrillers Memento and Insomnia, and though this film doesn't perform quite the same narrative acrobatics, it shares the gritty atmosphere and adult tone of Nolan's earlier works. At times it plays like a police procedural, a summer blockbuster and even a horror film, but it's seldom dull. It's somber without being too melancholy, and refreshingly free of camp or the gothic pop opera overkill of Tim Burton's take. The script was penned by David Goyer of the Blade trilogy. Here, he combines the mythos of Batman with boatloads of ominous Jungian overtones, replete with dual identity confusion, misplaced rage and lots of father issues.
Christian Bale has the charm and steely eyed intensity to flesh out the enigmatic hero, but he's also suave enough to pull off the callow playboy cover that Wayne uses to conceal his nocturnal endeavors. Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) isn't given much to chew on as the villainous Scarecrow, but his ghoulish mask and plot to poison the city's water supply with paranoia-inducing toxins is effective. There's a small army of fine actors in supporting roles, including Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine (as Wayne's loyal butler Alfred). Also strong is Liam Neeson as a mentor-menace to our hero, though his lengthy monologues about destiny and the power of harnessed anger have a distinctly Jedi air to them. Totally wasted is Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne's childhood sweetheart, a plucky, impossibly young D.A. who can sermonize about justice and evade hordes of maniacs without ever smudging her makeup or snagging her hosiery. Though she's the stiffest performer in the film, there's little for her to work with: The character is bland, and the romantic subplot with Bale is a wash. We all know that Batman is ultimately married to the night, and so the awkward arguments and puppy love flirtations with her are mostly dead air.
Fortunately the weak spots are few and far between, making Batman Begins the most consistent and rewarding Batman film since, well, the beginning.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].