Batman Begins

June, 2005, Thriller

Directed by:Christopher Nolan

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

Who says big-budget summer escapist movies can't be fun? Anyone who didn't thoroughly enjoy at least the earliest exploits of Indiana Jones or the fully realized world created by George Lukas in the original Star Wars just plain doesn't like being entertained. British director Christopher Nolan, (Following, Memento, Insomnia) while not equaling the magic of those legendary examples, has nevertheless managed to take the rather tired Batman franchise and totally rejuvenate it, producing the first legitimate reason to see one of this summer's over-the-top Hollywood offerings. Enlightened you won't be--entertained you will.

Nolan's earlier films, (especially Memento, his frightening examination of amnesia) explore the director's obsession with delusion, the capacity our minds have to trick us by altering our perception of reality. The inability to decipher what's real and what isn't always afflicts Nolan's protagonists with intense anxiety because they’re never sure their decisions really conform to their values. Forever uncertain of the underlying facts, these tortured souls are nevertheless aware of their condition while remaining unable--or unwilling--to take the corrective steps. Nolan's principal characters continuously wander through a landscape as morally foggy as it is emotionally threatening. Mental miasma has never been observed so sympathetically nor visualized so painfully.

          Tracing the title's comic-book character from childhood, Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer fashion a complex man who becomes a superhero only after struggling through the mental/moral quandary that's become Nolan's signature. Shamed by an early childhood fear of bats and suppressing deeply held feelings of mortification that he did nothing to prevent his parent's murders, Bruce Wayne/Batman, (Christian Bale) spends his young adulthood in an Oriental martial arts training school under the careful tutelage of Ducard, a chillingly articulate exponent of totalitarianism in the face of criminal evil. As played by Liam Neeson, Ducard's quiet demeanor and atavistic views on dealing with those committed to anti-social behavior make him one of the most chilling screen personas since Darth Vader. 

The ability of a skilled actor possessing a cultured voice to make inherently silly dialogue sound plausible works especially well here; Ducard's dictatorial instructions on what he perceives as fatuous distinctions between justice/revenge, punishment/bloodlust and the virtues of depriving others of their freedom in the face of socially deviant behavior initially sound as plausible to the audience as they do to the confused, tormented man who will one day don cape and mask to defend the law-abiding citizens of Gotham. By the time Wayne begins to think for himself, he's left Ducard and his ninja-clad minions and returned to his hometown to settle accounts with Carmine Falcone, (Tom Wilkinson) the crime-lord who rules the denizens of the metropolis where Wayne spent his childhood and lost his parents.

In a series of deftly executed scenes, Wayne plays the foppish ne'r-do-well while assembling an arsenal of weapons devised by Lucius Fox, (Morgan Freeman) the inventor friend and trusted confidant of Wayne's long-deceased father.  Aided by Alfred, (Michael Caine) the family's butler, the pseudo-playboy houses his new contraptions in a terrifically imagined cave below a wing of the family estate. Then as Batman, he attacks the drug trade plaguing the city and stumbles upon a plan to contaminate its water supply with mind-altering chemicals. Racing to find the perpetrator seeking such an apocalyptical end to the innocent as well as the guilty, our hero finally confronts old enemies aboard a train heading straight for disaster…

As Batman, Bale brings just the right blend of mental struggle and physical prowess to "the caped crusader", taking his character seriously enough to insure that the audience can justify suspending its disbelief. An outstanding supporting cast including Katie Holmes, (childhood sweetheart), Gary Oldman, (honest cop) Rutger Hauer, (corrupt businessman) and the truly creepy Cillian Murphy, (evil doctor) brings the same brisk efficiency to a galaxy of supporting roles that Bale and Caine provide in theirs. Never has so much talent been so perfectly employed to bring a simple comic book to life. Less self-conscious than Warren Beatty's Dick Tracey and far more intelligent than the over-praised Spiderman films, Batman Begins creates a new platform for what surely will be future episodes of this re-imagined figure.

As is so often the case in these blockbuster exercises, quantity often prevails over quality; having spent so much money and technical expertise on lavish sets and props, Nolan complicates his storyline with more subplots than these live-action cartoon figures are really capable of carrying, so the 2 hour and 20 minute running time lags a bit in the final reel. But make no mistake; this is beguiling filmmaking, a first-rate mixture of thunderous action, humor and just enough intellectual tension in Batman's motivations to make for a sure-fire way to beat the summer heat. 

The Verdict? Leave The New York Times Art Section pretensions behind and just go enjoy this one. 

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