June 20, 2005 -- “Batman Begins” is a very successful attempt to resurrect the nearly-defunct Batman franchise by starting over. It is certainly the best Batman movie since the 1989 film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker. That film, with its terrific production design, its dark, brooding hero and darker villain, set the stage for every modern comic book adaptation made since then.
This film goes back to the beginning, showing the forces that molded Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale of “Rein of Fire”) into Batman. This time we journey to the Far East where Wayne encounters a powerful secret society called The League of Shadows. The purpose of the League is to fight injustice and to wipe out what it considers to be urban decay. Wayne joins the League and learns all of its martial arts tricks. He later becomes disenchanted with the League and goes his own way.
Upon his return to Gotham City, he decides to invent his Batman personna with the aid of his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine of “Secondhand Lions”) and a renegade Wayne Enterprises weapons designer, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman of “Million Dollar Baby”). With the aid of Fox's armored combat suit, cool Batmobile and an honest cop, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), Batman is ready to fight crime and corruption in Gotham City. Another ally is assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes of “Pieces of April”). One of the chief crime lords in the city is Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson of “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). Another sinister character skulking around is a sort of underworld psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy of “28 Days Later”).
One of the more interesting characters in the film is Ducard (Liam Neeson of “Kinsey”). He plays a mentor and father figure to Bruce Wayne. The complex relationship between Wayne and Ducard brims with the dynamics of turbulent father and son relationships. It reminds me a bit of the relationship between Jedi and Sith masters and their pupils in the Star Wars movies. It is also like the complex father-son relationship in the classic western “Red River.” This story is about Wayne's rejection of the teachings of his surrogate father and accepting the path of his real father. In a way, this is like a coming-of-age film for adults. It is not about children becoming adults, it is about adults becoming independent of ideology to make tough moral choices on their own terms. It is true that Batman treads the path of the vigilante, but he does so lightly, and is always trying to balance the razor's edge of morality and justice. Batman's moral stance does not stand up to close scrutiny, but at least it appears some serious thought went into the subject.
The film looks great with strong production design by Nathan Crowley (“Insomnia”). The cinemtography by Wally Pfister, “The Italian Job” is effective. The story is also compelling and there are lots of good actors in the film. Unfortunately, one of the main characters is pretty weak, Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes. She's meant to be a counterpoint to Batman and the strong villains in the movie, but her character just isn't tough enough. Either the character needed to be re-written or a more formidable actress (like Sigourney Weaver) was needed to carry the load. The main thing in this kind of melodrama is to have a strong villain, and this film is loaded with them. They are stronger than the heroes. Cillian Murphy is great as the mad scientist. He achieves the kind of looney intensity in the role of the evil psychiatrist that one associates with Johnny Depp. This isn't the perfect Batman, but it is a solid film. This film rates a B.
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