By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Chris Nolan has brought us a vision of Batman that feels real, true, and yes, even plausible.
The word that popped into my head most often during the awesome experience that is Batman Begins was:
Folks, you can forget Joel Schumacher's DOA version of Batman... heck, in this reviewer's opinion you can even forget Tim Burton's. This is the real deal, and not just for fans of The Dark Knight, either. This movie works as both superhero flick and as a bonafide drama. Chris Nolan (director) and David Goyer (story and co-writer of the screenplay) have brought us (for the first time outside a comic book) a vision of Batman that feels real, true, and yes, even plausible.
Batman Begins opens directly into a red sky teeming with bats off in the distance, briefly forming into a vague Batman logo. That's it for opening credits, and we're on to what doesn't seem like a superhero movie at all, with a young (9 years old or so) Bruce Wayne playing on the grounds of Wayne Manor with a young girl, chasing each other over what turns out to be an Indian arrowhead. Almost immediately Bruce falls into the opening that leads to the huge underground cavern under the property and the girl (Rachel, who appears in the movie later) runs off to alert his father, who rescues Bruce from the bottom of the well.
From there we are taken abruptly to somewhere in Asia where Bruce, now in his late 20's seems to be in some sort of prison. He takes on half a dozen assailants with no problem whatsoever, apparently already having studied and mastered some form of martial arts. He is also already very strong as exemplified in the fight. Henri Ducard finds Bruce in prison and gives him some insight into how to direct the guilt and anger that have been driving him since childhood.
Bruce must make his way to a mountaintop enclave of Ra's Al Ghul where he is trained to overcome his fears, learn the battle and stealth skills of Ninjas, and supposedly to join their league which (in their minds) has fought injustice in the world for centuries. All goes well until Bruce is asked to cross a moral line and he refuses.
Wayne heads back to Gotham with the intent, if not the specifics of making himself into a symbol of justice. There we are introduced to Lucius Fox, who serves as the "Q" character from James Bond films and introduces Wayne to the survival suit, the "Tumbler" vehicle and a number of other soon-to-be bat-gadgets.
And yes, eventually Batman does show up, although it's not until about an hour into the movie. I really feel that's all I'll give as far as plot details and concentrate on the essence of the film.
The description above gives the barest outline of what is the heart of Batman Begins: The discovery of who the man behind that mask really is, and why he is. Through flashbacks and current events Chris Nolan creates a detailed and convincing story that has never been told before to my knowledge: What happened to Bruce Wayne between the time his parents died and when he finally ventured out to battle injustice? Of course we have Frank Miller's "Year One" story, but this fills in what happened before that. It is just completely giddy fan-boy fun to see Bruce Wayne start to plan out how he will use the cave beneath Wayne Manor and to watch the gears turning behind his eyes as Lucius Fox shows him a number of hi-tech gadgets that Bruce could employ in his quest.
As Sam Raimi was wise to do with the Spiderman films, Nolan knew that to care about what happens to a guy running around with a mask on, we have to get to know him with his mask off. We get to see the conflict and anguish that Bruce feels about his parents death, there's more background into the relationship between him and his father, helping the death to have more meaning for us as well as Bruce. There's also an interesting new angle on where to lay the blame. In addition there is also much depth to the relationship between Alfred and Bruce as we see the foundation of Alfred's devotion to the Wayne family in general and his faith in Bruce.
Christian Bale pulled off both sides of the character extremely well, and don't worry, there is plenty of Bat-action to be seen once things get cranking. As I'd read prior to seeing the film, Bale did take on a ferocious, animal-like persona when he was in costume. In this regard two scenes in particular stand out: One with Dr. Crane and another with Batman dangling someone upside down from a rooftop. Bale made me believe that criminals would be terrified of ever running into the Batman.
What really struck me was the sense of reality in Batman Begins: Gotham looking real instead of like some bizarre and surreal place, most (if not all) of the car chases and stunts done live and in full scale. Very little CGI and the lack of it made a big difference as far as making this all believable.
As usual I loved Liam Neeson's performance and Gary Oldman was great as (the not yet Commissioner) Gordon. And Morgan Freeman, what can you say about him? His acting is smooth and seemingly effortless and always fun to watch. Ditto for Michael Caine.
The only minor negatives I can come up with are a couple of scenes where the dialogue was a bit muffled and I couldn't make it out and the fact that it was hard to see what was going on in the fight scenes do to overly close-in camera work. The Rachel character (played by Katie Holmes) was also weak. My pal Garth over at Dark Horizons made a great point in his review, stating that it would have been better if Harvey Dent had been the district attorney instead.
Batman is back boys and girls, and I can only hope that this team stays together for at least one more movie, the villain of which may have been introduced in the final scene of the film.
Just go see it.