Batman Begins

Batman BeginsYoung billionaire Bruce Wayne, traumatized by the murder of his parents, wanders the world attempting to find some purpose to his life. After being directed to the mountaintop retreat of Ra’s Al Ghul, Wayne seems to find some peace with his past. But Wayne is unable to join Ra’s Al Ghul in his quest to topple civilization and he, instead, tears down Al Ghul’s retreat and returns to his home in Gotham City to become its protector. He takes on the mantle of Batman and aligns himself with Jim Gordon, one of the few uncorrupted officers on the Gotham Police Force. But just as he begins to do some good, Ra’s Al Ghul comes back into his life, questioning whether he has chosen the right side for which to fight…

screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
story by David S. Goyer (Batman created by Bob Kane)
directed by Christopher Nolan
music by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s Al Ghul), Mark Boone Junior (Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Larry Holden (Finch), Gerard Murphy (Judge Faden), Colin McFarlane (Loeb), Sara Stewart (Martha Wayne), Gus Lewis (Bruce Wayne – age 8 ), Richard Brake (Joe Chill), Rade Serbedzija (Homeless Man), Emma Lockhart (Rachel Dawes – age 8 )

LogBook entry and review by Philip R. Frey

Review: Batman Begins is a fresh start for the Batman franchise that began with such promise with 1989’s Batman and crashed in flames with 1997’s Batman & Robin. It jettisons the ultimately convoluted continuity of the ’89-’97 series in favor of telling Batman’s origins from the ground up. It clearly uses the “Batman: Year One” comic series as a template, but finds its own path as far as the details are concerned.

And what details! Batman Begins is superhero-as-epic. From the vast scenery to the far-reaching storyline, it’s easy to see why director Christopher Nolan has said he was inspired by films from years past, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962). This can work against the film, of course. Some of the early scenes tend to drag on and the film ends up lacking cohesion because there are so many threads trying to be tied together. Action sequences also suffer, since Nolan’s strong focus on Bruce / Batman seems to make them almost an afterthought, as if he can’t wait to get them over with. As a result, they often come off as incoherent. Overall, however, Nolan’s approach does a good job of making sense of Bruce Wayne / Batman’s place in the grand scheme of things.

Christian Bale has the task of defining the character of Bruce Wayne before he defines Batman and this works in his favor. It’s clear that, at least to Bale, Bruce is the real person and Batman the fiction. His Wayne is a complex portrayal, with nuances that are missing from his alter ego, whose one-note delivery ends surprisingly flat. Still, Bale makes the two believable aspects of the same character, tying them to each other well.

Michael Caine brings a bit of the working class to Alfred, keeping his cockney accent intact. This helps make him more hands-on than Alfreds past, while still maintaining his nobility and strong sense of loyalty. Almost any other actor of Caine’s stature might think this kind of movie beneath him, but Caine has never been one to take the job of actor that seriously. He seems to be having fun with the role and it comes across.

Katie Holmes’ strength is her ability to look like a fresh-faced young adult in one sequence, then portray the same character as older and more cynical without any disconnect. That being said, she has a hard time portraying a convincing hard-nosed district attorney. Her scenes with Bale are strong, however, and on an emotional level her character works.

The smaller roles are something of a mixed bag. Liam Neeson finds himself mostly in Qui-Gon Jinn mode in Batman Begins. His surprisingly small, but pivotal role as Wayne’s mentor is powerful and it’s easy to see how he earns Wayne’s devotion. Cillian Murphy (incredibly once considered for the part of Batman) brings a smooth sliminess to his role of Dr. Crane / Scarecrow, but (much like John Michael Higgins in the Goyer-penned Blade: Trinity) his true nature is far too obvious. More subtlety would have been stronger. Rutger Hauer and Morgan Freeman are the actors most hurt by the preponderance of plot. There’s a lot going on between their two characters and I got the sense that there was a sub-plot in there at some point that eventually got cut out. This leaves the two characters with some snappy dialogue the director seemed unwilling to cut that doesn’t really connect, since we never actually get to know them.

Young actors Gus Lewis and Emma Lockheart are a real weak point. Both are far too precious for their own good and Lewis’ perpetually pouting face is grating. It wouldn’t be such a big issue with me if they were limited to the opening sequences, but Nolan’s penchant of never-ending flashbacks means I have to see them over and over again (sometimes in the exact same sequences I’ve seen numerous times already).

And then there’s Gary Oldman. Oldman is, unquestionably, my favorite part of Batman Begins. I’ve enjoyed Oldman’s work for years, dating back to Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (1990). Here, he brings his usual devotion to the part by making Jim Gordon a real, believable cop for the first time since Pat Hingle in the ’89 film. (Hingle’s portrayal was almost immediately marginalized in the series, much to my dismay.) And the way that Oldman has captured the look of Gordon is stunning. He’s practically a walking David Mazzuchelli drawing. He also serves as the audience’s connection to the story; brilliantly portraying the awe, fear and respect we are meant to feel for Batman.

The effects in Batman Begins are remarkable mainly because in this day of digital everything, Nolan insisted on as many practical effects as possible. This, no doubt, made the movie more expensive than it had to be, but it’s a price worth paying. As good as the digital effects look in films like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, nothing beats actually building a set or actually blowing things up. The look of the film charts new territory, but doesn’t really fall that far from the ’90s series. Batman Begins owes a lot more to Batman than many seem to realize. Everything from the costume to the portrayal of the Batcave has connections back to the earlier film. One thing that does strike out on it’s own (and not in a good way) is the Batmobile. I’m a bit of a stickler for Batmobiles and the one in Batman Begins, although a fine vehicle in its own right, doesn’t feel like a Batmobile to me. It looks more like some kind of insect.

The soundtrack, unfortunately, fails to evoke the sense of the world that Batman Begins portrays so strikingly. The score, composed by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, is meant to connect differently with the two aspects of the story and Batman’s character. What happens, however, is that neither composer’s “voice” comes through, meaning the film has no central musical theme. There’s nothing to grab the viewer and help pull them through. The music just kind of sits there. There’s nothing that says “Batman”, let alone “Bruce Wayne”.

There is an old saying in the movie business: shake a film and twenty minutes fall out. Batman Begins needs a good shaking. This is not to say it’s a bad film, by any means. It’s actually very good. But it could be vastly improved by taking out some of the useless side plots and tightening up some of the more drawn out sequences. If this film has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the pacing. A more direct film, with fewer distractions (and perhaps a single composer) would work a good deal better. Still, there is much to admire in Batman Begins and it stands up well to the best of the earlier series. But it doesn’t quite measure up to the much better balanced Batman, nor can it approach (as some reviewers have suggested) the still unequalled Superman (1978) for presenting a comic book character in all his aspects to an audience.

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