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10:21 AM 6/19/1997

If you like them busy, this `Batman' is for you

Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle

THE new menu item down at the Batman franchise is No. 4, the Batman & Robin burger.

If you like 'em busy, this sequel is for you. It's the busiest, most active one yet, the filmmaking equivalent of those "extreme" sports that fill the hours on ESPN2.

But a lunar tide tugs on this set of filmmakers, who also did the previous caped-crusader movie. If No. 3 were more appropriately like a comic book than Nos. 1 and 2 -- the Tim Burton "dark" Batmans -- this one is the most like the old TV series ("Holy Ice Sculpture, Batman!").

Three guys have been Batman in these movies -- George Clooney in this one -- with equal success; you could probably cast anybody short of Martin Short in the role. The fact is, these things always rise or fall on the amusement provided by the villains and the production design.

As in the previous film, there are co-villains in Batman & Robin.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is Mr. Freeze, who must wear a mechanical exoskeleton to keep his body temperature at zero. He wields the opposite of a flame-thrower: an ice cannon that can turn anybody into an instant ice sculpture. His goal is to revert Gotham to the Ice Age.

Uma Thurman is Poison Ivy, a botanical researcher who, after being infused with snake venom, has kisses that kill and the ability to blow from the palm of her hand a sort of enchantment dust that makes men do her bidding. She aims to exterminate all orders of life above her beloved plants.

Neither villain is as lively or funny as Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey were in the previous film.

In addition to playing in his short suit, comedy, Schwarzenegger also must hold a place in his characterization for Mr. Freeze's redemption. (Do I smell a two-picture deal?)

Thurman, to arrive at a '40s femme fatale, sometimes seems to be doing Mae West by way of Jessica Rabbit.

Lord knows that production designer Barbara Ling had the gross national product of New Zealand for a budget. The film looks huge.

But the dominant visual theme -- ice -- is limiting. Eventually the film becomes monochromatic and, despite its frenetic action sequences, close to monotonous.

The ideas don't turn over as fast as in the previous film, either. Mr. Freeze shoots that ice cannon a lot, with the same effect. Batman and Robin (Chris O'Donnell again) rely quite often on those Bat-Grappling Hooks to ascend or descend. They are joined in the Batcave by new recruit Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone).

This is a movie based on comic books, and it's silly to hold the filmmakers' feet to the fire on issues of characterization, motivation and logic.

Can't find much fault with director Joel Schumacher, who also did the previous film, for his handling of the kinetic scenes. But he is the captain of this ship, and he set sail with a marginal screenplay.

Writer Akiva Goldsman gets the occasional dialogue laugh. But the viewers with whom I saw the film were ready, willing and able to laugh more often than they did.

Batman & Robin

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger

and George Clooney

Opening: Today at area theaters

Rating: PG-13