Friday, June 17, 2005

Batman Begins / **** (2005)

"If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely."
-Henri Ducard, Dialogue from "Batman Begins"

In comic books it is the ideology of heroes (particularly the more emotionally unstable ones) to become the embodiment of their phobias, to turn all traces of pain and suffering into an inspiration behind their careers as crime-fighters. Some (like Frank Castle, aka The Punisher) embrace this conviction at a tactical level, while others (like the more well-known Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man) simply remake themselves into actual objects of horror. The latter certainly constitutes for most of the more interesting superheroes of the comic universe; when it comes to leaving a lasting impression on those whom you are facing off against, sometimes image is everything. And besides, if you were a masked vigilante who wanted to be known to those whom you were waging war against, would you have more success being yourself or being an unknown in a spider suit?

So is certainly the foundation concerning the invention of Batman. The alter ego of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who trounces up and down alleyways of the musty Gotham City seemingly ignorant of its behind-the-scenes peril, the identity is not just some elaborate suit encasing a megalomaniac who is out for sheer thrills; rather, it is the emotional punching bag of a guy who has been chewed up and spit out by the world around him far too many times to ponder. Derived from a childhood trauma that involved a cave full of bats, the suit is not disguise but a weapon of retribution, and Wayne makes use of it to both thwart crime as well as confront inner demons. His is a punishment in which enemies must experience that terror, the same fear that deepened his own isolation and misery. It is, in his mind, the essential justice, and a much more worthwhile form of payback than death or pain, which seem merely like easy ways out in context with the bigger picture.

These ideas and convictions are in the very fabric that jumpstarts "Batman Begins," the newest installment in a long line of films about the adventures of Gotham's quintessential masked savior. As its title implies, of course, this is a story about origins - or more precisely, a man's inner conflicts which ultimately manifest themselves into a form that is both fearsome and familiar. At the start of the picture, our young and uncultivated protagonist is but a few years old, killing time on an average day by playing with a close friend. Falling down a deep cave with a swarm of thousands of bats is both an alarming and frightening experience that is not easily forgotten (especially at such a young age), but alas it is only one in a series of tragedies that progress as time goes on. One night after an opera, young Bruce's parents are gunned down right in front of him. Later, the accused gunman is set free on a technicality, and is shot down outside the courtroom by an unknown assailant. Oncoming emotional blows culminate in a decision that has him completely abandon life in Gotham and disappear into the far corners of the world, where he eventually winds up in a prison camp and, later, is saved and recruited by a group of vigilantes known as the League of Shadows.

His enlistment with the group brings about a teacher/student relationship with Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), the league's mouthpiece who spends just as much time offering insightful wisdom as he does putting his pupil through grueling training sessions. Here a deadened Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is taught to compact his anger into something of a defense mechanism, and under the watchful presence of the group's leader Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), he masters swordplay, hand-to-hand combat and face-offs against large groups of combatants, among other things. The one task that he does not master, much to the displeasure of his superiors, is that of killing offenders - when the time comes for him to join the resistance and seal the deal by executing an enemy of the league's, he is unable to follow through, citing the notion that having blood on his hands makes him no better than the actual wrongdoer. Perhaps he is right, but that certainly doesn't stop him from trying to evaporate the resistance that trained him, especially when they threaten his life for refusing to follow through what they desire of him.

Fully revitalized but still burdened by inner torment, Wayne nonetheless returns to Gotham City thereafter, only to find that its menacing society has slowly but surely grown more merciless with time. Early goals of his father as an entrepreneur were to share his wealth with those less fortunate, but gone is the philosophy of a dead business tycoon. Now the divides between the good and the bad are too great to comprehend - wealth is achieved only by those ruthless enough to take it, and general human decency is cast aside like a disease, the very idea absurd in an age when crime is more authoritative than law. Key players in this ongoing social dictatorship include Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), a mobster with so many ties to high-ranking officials that relentless crime hardly seems enough to put him behind bars, and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who seems most intent on having the convictions on hard criminals adjusted to allow them to be kept at the local asylum for him to study. Such ideals are exactly the kind that triggered the tragedies of Bruce Wayne's younger years, and it is exactly those kinds of prospects that drive him out of his self-imposed seclusion and into the deviant Batman persona. This is not merely some kind of pastime or excuse to show off a few new physical skills; rather, it is a job that must be done, and must be done by someone who is removed enough from the current system to identify the problems without playing favorites.

If not for the fact that the existing Warner Bros. film franchise about the caped crusader skirted these issues and ultimately caved in on itself, we might have never needed a new installment to tell us all that was necessary about the Bruce Wayne legend. "Batman Begins" comes rushing off the screen like a long-delayed form of enlightenment, finally realizing the full concept of its namesake where all previous endeavors simply sideswiped the depths in favor of the gloss on the surface. It is, perhaps, almost astounding that we can learn so much more about such a guy like this so far in the game; the narrative makes such a conscious effort to see behind the mask of a bat-like superhero that the actual costume is, maybe deservingly, nothing more than an accessory in the scheme of things. Bruce Wayne, in fact, doesn't even slip into his new guise until long after the first hour is over, indeed stressing the thought that, contrary to popular belief, there is more behind the mask than an average Joe.

The director is Christopher Nolan, whose two previous films are of the unconventional formula - the puzzle film "Memento" and the thriller "Insomnia." Here, he has completely stripped the Hollywood version of Batman and has rebuilt him into one of the most un-Hollywood perceptions possible: a character who is not a person but just a projection of something deeper, something more menacing and foreboding than previous filmmakers might have been willing to admit. The Tim Burton films about the caped crusader succeeded more in breathing life into the shady backdrop of Gotham City, while Schumacher's were simply about nifty gadgets and lots of special effects. Now the focus is introverted; this is a movie about Bruce Wayne and his intense emotional crisis, not a picture about some guy hidden behind a mask and a rubber suit who thrives on kicking butt in some dark deserted alley. Nor, for that matter, is the movie overburdened by wise-cracking villains who could probably get careers as stand-up comedians; here the antagonists are designated to their quintessential duties without overpowering the center. Prior attempts have yielded results in which the bad guys always managed to upstage the protagonist, but no more. There is no competition whatsoever in Nolan's film, just solid character development on multiple cylinders.

Christian Bale, who did astounding work in "American Psycho" and most recently "The Machinist," makes the most sympathetic Batman to date; playing the material as if it were straight drama, he embodies the very essence of Bruce Wayne without making the character's imperfections seem so mechanical or overstated. The movies in this series no doubt forgot that the spirit of the Batman persona was that it was built on foundations of misfortune, and Bale brings realization to that concept. Other castings provide just as much success; Michael Caine is quite good as Alfred, Wayne's most trust servant (almost a surrogate father), and Cillian Murphy is utterly delicious as the mad Dr. Crane, who splinters into an even madder alter ego dubbed the Scarecrow when it comes time for the city's evildoers to join ranks and poison the city with a hallucinogen that will bring out their fears and drive them to utter hysteria. I also got a kick out of Morgan Freeman's wise but witty Lucius Fox, a top scientist for Wayne Enterprises who happily invites his boss in to explore his laboratory when the plot calls for Batman to develop his superhero shell with nifty gadgets and useful weapons.

The movie's look is remarkably energetic given its lack of obvious special effects. Gotham City does not exist here on blue screens but is actually there in reality, composed of exterior shots of Chicago, and occasionally enhanced with a visual detail or two to add certain personality (like a monorail system that acts like a transportation spine from one end of the metropolis to the next). Other aspects, like the Batmobile, look like evolving concepts rather than finalized products, which certainly lends to the resonance of the story's premise. Some audiences, particularly those raised on the earlier films, might find it a bit off-putting to see a batman in a costume that looks more rubbery and less streamlined than what was dawned by previous actors in this role, but really this is no more different than the prospect of watching a man slowly but surely feel his way around the concept of wearing a Bat suit, learning as he goes. Heroes are not perfect, particularly in the beginning. The suit in truth is probably more interesting here than it has ever been - without a giant golden emblem on his chest (or even rubber nipples), Batman looks more like a menace rather than a sexual fetish.

Eight years exist between the previous "Batman" feature and this new one, a sufficient enough time for the series to lay low and recharge. The remarkable thing about "Begins," however, is that its treatment is so fully comprehended that it's as if all previous incarnations of this hero never existed (and indeed, as suggested by a later sequence in the film, it will likely ignore all traces of the earlier movies by retelling their stories in succeeding chapters). When it comes to the legacy of film, it's hard to erase the past, especially when the past has been as checkered as that of the "Batman" narrative. But here is an achievement that cleanses the legacy of all its mistakes and gives rebirth to the concept that we have come to recognize. "Batman Begins" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that even the dead can live again with the right treatment. At long last, it is okay to be a fan of the bat-like superhero again.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action (US); 2005; Rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements; Running Time: 141 Minutes

Christian Bale: Bruce Wayne/Batman
Michael Caine:
Alfred Pennyworth
Liam Neeson:
Henri Ducard
Morgan Freeman:
Lucius Fox
Gary Oldman:
Lt. James Gordon
Ken Watanabe:
Ra's Al Ghul
Katie Holmes:
Rachel Dawes
Cillian Murphy:
Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow
Tom Wilkinson:
Carmine Falcone
Rutger Hauer:
Richard Earle

Produced by 
Larry J. Franco, Benjamin Melniker, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Cheryl A. Tkach and Michael E. Uslan; Directed by Christopher Nolan; Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on the comic book created by Bob Kane

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