UGO's World of Batman - Batman Begins Review - BATMAN.UGO.COM
 



Sixty-six years after his creation, the Dark Knight is now a hot and undeniable film property, and a veteran of a half-dozen big budget, live-action films. Turn off the lights, start the projector and join us as we unspool a ribbon of Dark Knight dreams.


Batman Begins

Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer.

 

Direction: A+
Writing: A+
Performances: A+
Visual Appeal: A+
Overall Grade: A+

It would be nice to say that Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins is the movie Bat-fans have been dreaming of for years. Nice, but untrue. The truth is that most of us, even in our wildest dreams, would never have believed a film this good about Batman would be possible. Yes, we hoped for a script after the manner of Batman: Year One, with its starkly realistic portrayal of Gotham City and the people in it. Yes, we hoped for an actor with the chops to play the Dark Knight, who not only looked like the character we so loved, but who would give the role the respect it deserves, without once ever winking at the camera. And yes, we hoped for a director with the courage to break completely with tradition and take the Batman legend in a new direction, away from Adam West and Joel Schumacher and even the smallest smidgen of camp. Yet few if any of us could ever have hoped that not only would we get all three of those essential elements in our perfect Batman film - no, we'd also get an ensemble cast of truly excellent actors, a story that treated our hero like a fallible, breathing, real human being, and a vision of the Batman origin story so wonderfully rich with verisimilitude. It seems as if the guiding rule for every single creative decision in this film was "make it real" - believe that this man experienced these events, did these things. Every performance, every shot, every design decision seems to be governed by this imperative, and the result is that the world we're watching seems new and breathtakingly fresh, as if we were seeing all of these things for the very first time.

Batman Begins tells the story of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)'s quest for the "means to fight injustice," and his tutelage in Buton at the hands of Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) is intercut with a flashback story relating just exactly who he is and how he came to seek such a thing. In the past, we meet Bruce as a child, playing joyfully with his young friend Rachel Dawes. Running over the Wayne estate, Bruce falls into a cave and finds himself face to face with a yawning darkness that terrifies him - a void that turns out to be a massive bat's nest. The creatures swarm over the boy, terrifying him and marking him for life. Rescued by his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne (played beautifully by Linus Roache), Bruce remains shaken. "Why do we fall?" Thomas asks his son. "So that we can learn how to pick ourselves back up." It's a pattern Bruce will continue to follow for the rest of his life.

In the present-day, he learns to uncover and face his fears under the tutelage of Ra's al Ghul's servant, Henri Ducard (a character originally created by Sam Hamm, writer of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman), played masterfully by Liam Neeson. In the flashbacks, the familiar outlines of Batman's origin are present, but they're so remarkably fleshed out with new details that it feels like we're hearing the story for the very first time. In the past, Bale's Bruce Wayne confronts Tom Wilkinson's Carmine Falcone, a Gotham gang-boss whose corruption makes men like Joe Chill (Wayne's parents' murderer) possible. Falcone presents Bruce with realities: that he hasn't mastered his fear, nor learned to be the cause of fear in others, and that a famous pretty-boy socialite like himself can be heard coming a mile away. Thus, Bruce becomes a world-traveling wanderer in search of himself and the tools to transcend his human limits. He finds the latter with Ducard and Ra's al Ghul; the former eludes him. He must return to Gotham City to find it. It's there that step by careful step, Batman will be born. Wayne will confront his old friend Rachel (Katie Holmes), now an assistant district attorney (interestingly, there's no Harvey Dent in evidence here), who takes him to task for seeming to live a useless life. And Bruce has to deal with a greedy corporate executive, Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), who's maneuvering to edge him out of the business.

A great part of the film's phenomenal success certainly derives from its amazing cast. Fresh life is given to Lucius Fox (a delightful, fresh-from-his-Oscar-victory Morgan Freeman), who in the comics was little more than the man who ran Bruce's business in his absence. Here the relationship with Fox is a great deal more sophisticated - and fascinating. Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon is a joy to behold, particularly for diehard fans who've missed seeing the character portrayed on screen as he is in the comics for a good long time. No portly bumbler, this Gordon is right out of Miller and Mazzucchelli's Year One: a tough, honest Gotham cop who's working his way from the sludge at the bottom to a view from the top (what can Oldman not do?). Cillian Murphy's Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka the Scarecrow) is appropriately manic and creepy, a sadist who thrives on others' fears. He's frequently terrifying, even in scenes without his mask. (The film shows us what the Scarecrow's victims actually see, when their minds are addled with his gas-induced terror, a device that works beautifully.) Katie Holmes' Rachel Dawes, a feared weak link among such accomplished performers, acquits herself marvelously - she strikes just the right note of moral certitude and inner strength - and her relationship with Bale's Wayne is delicately and movingly portrayed. Then there's Bale himself, who has truly done for Batman what Christopher Reeve did for Superman - taken the part seriously, given it his all, and made a human being out of a comic book legend.

Every little detail of Nolan's film is satisfying. Not one of Batman's given circumstances - the parameters that define his reality - is taken for granted. Each potentially fantastic or unbelievable element of the character is given a plausible explanation and a cause. Batman is strong because he does push-ups. He can't fly, and when in an early rooftop escapade, he leaps off a roof, falls badly and nearly breaks his back, sending him back to the drawing board and giving him a reason to wear that famous cape. And he needs his amazing new Batmobile for very good reasons, not merely because "chicks dig the car." Nothing is just for show. Everything has a purpose. This is what makes the characters and their situations believable. This is what makes the story work.

Batman Begins is so richly satisfying, it's hard to find a fault in it. If there is one, it's probably a slight - and we emphasize, slight - confusion of multiple plotlines which occurs long about the third act. There are perhaps one too many dramatic threads to be untangled, very close to the end of the film, and the glut of details we're presented with (it's easy to get lost in the Blade Runner-inspired Gotham City Nolan has conjured out of Chicago) are hard to process, for a time. But this soon passes, and the deep satisfaction returns as the film climaxes, and then closes on a terrific final scene (if you're a Batfan, this last bit will make your heart sing). Nolan's movie certainly stands ready to rocket him, and star Christian Bale, up to superstar status. But more importantly - most importantly - he's given us something we never ever dreamed we wanted. He's made a man of a legend, and turned an old tale clouded with camp and silliness into a fresh and moving story with clear morals. To overcome your fears, you must face them. We only fall so that we can learn how to pick ourselves back up. And who we are is determined by what we do, not what we say. Thank you, Christopher Nolan. Thank you, Christian Bale. The Dark Knight has indeed returned.

Read our Interview with Christian Bale

Read our Interview with Christopher Nolan

Batman Begins Gallery

See the entire Batman Begins gallery



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