Movie review by Greg Carlson
Chris Nolan, an inspired choice to revamp the flagging cash machine that D.C. Comics has tapped for nearly seven decades in one form or another, makes sure that his Batman is as serious as seeing your parents murdered. Solidly built, admirable, and occasionally enjoyable, “Batman Begins” spends so much time taking itself seriously that it bogs down under the weight of its own oversimplified pop psychology. Batman is a resilient character (consider the graduated scale that includes Adam West’s 1960s cheekiness and Frank Miller’s gritty Dark Knight), and Christian Bale’s committed performance manages to write a new chapter for at least the movie incarnations of the famous caped crusader.
Wisely starting over with a nearly clean slate, Nolan lavishes considerable time and attention on Bruce Wayne’s tragic back-story. Comic book hero origin mythology almost always purchases a solid first act, and this time the young billionaire rejects his privilege for a soul-searching tour of duty in remote corners of the globe. Landing in Asia (with Iceland standing in as the actual shooting location), Wayne undergoes arduous martial arts training with the deadly League of Shadows, led by the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, once again channeling his “Star Wars”-style mentor role). The script, penned by Nolan with David Goyer, reveals its first major weakness, pummeling the audience with endless discussion about fear (why it is important, how it can be addressed, harnessed, and conquered, etc.) that seemingly peppers every other line of dialogue.
The film is decidedly more interesting once Wayne returns to Gotham and decides to fight criminals, vigilante-style, in the guise of his newly hatched nocturnal alter-ego. With the help of loyal valet Alfred (Michael Caine, making it look easy) and Wayne Industries tech expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, also making it look easy), Bruce/Batman puts the rest of the well-known puzzle together: the cape, the cowl, the utility belt, the Bat Cave, and the Batmobile are all given just enough spin by Nolan to feel fresh. Soon enough, Batman crosses paths with childhood crush Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an assistant district attorney, cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who seems like the last honest man on the force, and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who moonlights as the fiendish Scarecrow.
More than enough snoozy plotting about an attempt to destroy the city with chemical agents in the water supply sets up the final act pyrotechnics, and frankly, Nolan can usually be counted on to avoid this kind of stuff in favor of subtler, smarter choices. “Batman Begins” is, however, a summertime super hero flick, and it’s a sight better than other comic book translations helmed by acclaimed directors (see: “Hulk”). In terms of physical action, Nolan also shoots far too few masters, and the closeness of the photography makes it impossible to tell exactly what is going on in the fight and action scenes.
“Batman Begins” tags on an epilogue that sets up the sequel and the sequel’s central villain (fans certainly won’t need more than a single guess). Hopefully, the next movie will allow for an even deeper examination of Bruce Wayne, the person. In “Batman Begins,” Nolan offers any number of promising suggestions that we will get to see Wayne struggling with his role as Gotham’s most prominent citizen, but most of the time, the screenplay quickly resorts to the troubled character’s disdain – and near contempt – for his out-of-costume, public persona. And despite the fact that nobody in town seems to make the connection that Batman starts cracking skulls at exactly the same time Bruce Wayne returns after a lengthy hiatus, the secret identity dialectic could be child’s play for someone with Nolan’s talent.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/20/05.