Christian Bale does a magnificent job of portraying the Caped Crusader in the long-awaited prequel story of Batman’s auspicious origin. Although the humorless script by director Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer hits a few embarrassing plot snags, the movie suitably articulates a promising modern vision for the Batman franchise. Morgan Freeman brings a welcome air of lightheartedness as Bruce Wayne’s personal high-tech specialist Lucius Fox, and Michael Caine is perfectly charming as Wayne’s long-trusted butler Alfred. The only miscasting comes from Cillian Murphy as Batman’s inaugural evil foe Dr. Jonathan Crane (AKA "Scarecrow"). "Batman Begins" focuses on the caliginous aspects of the Dark Knight’s personality that were minted when the young Bruce Wayne fell into a bat-filled well on his wealthy father’s sprawling estate.
The filmmakers convincingly rebuild the Batman franchise from the ground up, but take on more unwieldy subplots than the movie can support. The first hour delves into Bruce Wayne’s personal journey inside the criminal mind after a homeless mugger kills his parents right before his eyes. The journey that follows is like a narrative cross between "Kill Bill" and "The Last Samurai." Bruce Wayne travels to Western China where he is imprisoned before being rescued by an enigmatic mentor named Ducard (Liam Neeson). Ducard teaches the able-bodied Wayne that he must embrace his greatest fears (bats are the sourse of Wayne's worst anxieties) in order to invoke that same level of fear over his fiercest enemies. Ducard’s mental and physical hocus-pocus is expanded on by ninja master Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who gives Wayne a morally ambiguous lesson in ruthlessness and revenge.
Once back in Gotham, the intractable Bruce Wayne sets about designing plausible methods for implementing his hard-won physical skills to rid the city of crime and corruption. Parallels to "Taxi Driver’s" Travis Bickle prevail as Bale's Wayne contemplates an assassination attempt that he comes perilously close to committing.
The inevitable jump to Batman as crimefighter-at-large provides for a series of delectable scenes wherein Bruce Wayne compensates for his lack of super-hero powers by hammering out the gadget aspects of his imposing costume. His penchant for push-ups amends a rigorous workout routine that make this Batman one tough bruiser to tangle with--George Clooney stand down. The update on Batman’s best-loved Batmobile presents a fetishistic focal point for the movie with its colossal tires and innovative design. The tricked out auto allows Batman to drive the vehicle like a motorcycle when circumstances oblige.
However, the worship that the filmmakers bestow on the glorious Batmobile derails the movie for a good ten minutes while Batman outruns a cavalcade of cops with far more effort than our grim protagonist should ever have to exhibit. The overwrought chase scene is all the more annoying for a flimsy narrative thread that has Batman wasting precious time while his friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) lays dying in the passenger seat because he left home without the antidote for the poison gas he knew was coming. The irksome circumstances of the sequence also bring unwelcome attention to the film’s overlong running time and winnows down the film’s otherwise worthy climax.
The introduction of an archetypal Batman villain ("Scarecrow") intrudes on the already crammed storyline. Cillian Murphy is about 10-years too young to bring sufficient gravitas to a doctor-villain who uses poisonous gas on his victims. Scarecrow’s mask is nothing more than a burlap-disguised gas mask. In at least one scene between Rachel and Dr. Crane, the perky assistant district attorney towers over him. How the screenwriters settled on "Scarecrow" from Batman’s gauntlet of possible villains is a conundrum best ignored in order to appreciate "Batman Begins" for its visual spectacle and otherwise superior characterizations.
Cinema’s Batman has a new inspiring face in Christian Bale. The estimable actor promises to fulfill the demands of the comic book legend like no thesbian before him. Bale commits as completely to the role as he has for every part he’s ever taken since he began his distinguished film acting career with "Empire Of The Sun" in 1987. Bale melds intelligent sophistication to the seething boil of Batman’s personality as the character reconciles corruption from the grimy streets of Gotham up through the corridors of power inside his own corporation. Now the screenwriters just need to write a sequel script mordant enough to match Bale’s boundless depth of ingenuity and passion.
Rated PG-13. 140 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
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