Batman Begins (2005)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 6/15/05
Director: Christopher Nolan
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, cameo by Stuart Ong

Desperately trying to wash away the stains that Joel Schumacher left on the devastated franchise, "Batman Begins" re-invents the legend of the Batman with admirable results. While the pivotal event of Bruce Wayne's parents being brutally murdered is core to the mythology, the details have all been rewritten. Like all of the previous films, this one disregards all existing continuity and takes its own bold direction with the story and characters. An origin story for a new Batman franchise, "Batman Begins" tells the tale of a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as he struggles to deal with the guilt and anger he feels regarding his parents' deaths. He studies the criminal underworld to get a better understanding of the criminal mind, and travels to the Far East to receive brutal martial arts training at the hands of Ra's Al Ghul. While Ra's and Bruce share the same ideals, their methods for enforcement radically differ, and they end up violently parting ways. Bruce eventually returns to Gotham City and becomes a symbol of fear and salvation to the city, which has become a festering cesspool of corruption and decay. He befriends police detective James Gordon (a completely unrecognizeable Gary Oldman) and goes up against the wickedly sinister Scarecrow (a delightful Cillian Murphy), who has plans to douse the city in a fear toxin.

The film is a mixed bag. The look and tone of the film are superb, and for the most part the characters and acting are quite good. While Christian Bale does an admirable job with the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman, I just didn't like him. He didn't have the right look to me, and he seemed a bit too young for the role. Maybe I just don't like the way his mouth looks. Michael Caine does a good job as Alfred, Wayne's butler, but he doesn't seem comfortable or appropriate in the role. Gary Oldman makes a superb Jim Gordon, and thankfully sports his trademark moustache and glasses, unlike Pat Hingle's portrayal in the previous films. Lucius Fox is a throwaway role for Morgan Freeman, but he makes the best of it. Katie Holmes's character only serves as eye candy, and to inject some sort female presence in an otherwise male dominated story. She's cute, but nothing more. It would have been much more interesting to see Ra's Al Ghul's daughter, Talia, thrown into the mix as a love interest instead. Speaking of Ra's, there's definitely a bit of confusion surrounding him. While it's made abundantly clear that Liam Neeson is Ra's, Ken Watanabe is listed in the credits. I was under the impression that Ken's character was merely a puppet, controlled by Neeson from the shadows, but perhaps I'm wrong. The story certainly makes more sense given that interpretation. Regardless, Neeson's performance is the best of the bunch, and the screen crackles with his intensity and charisma.

Action-wise, the film really delivers. The training sequences in Tibet are definitely the highlight of the film, and the choreography and execution are wonderful. The locale is also breathtaking, and Ra's Al Ghul's mountain castle is amazing. Unfortunately, the hand-to-hand combat sequences fall apart when Bruce Wayne dons the Batman outfit. He's presented more as a force of nature - a whirling black shape that strikes in the darkness. While I understand this presentation, it's frustrating to not actually SEE and be able to appreciate the results of his martial arts training in action. Not surprisingly, the Batmobile gets a complete makeover, and turns out to be a military ATV of some kind. While it looks rather silly, watching it perform is utterly delightful, and the chase sequences through Gotham City are tense and exciting. Hans Zimmer's strong and tragic score does a wonderful job of complementing the action and defining the oppressive atmosphere of Gotham City. While there are numerous plot holes, inconsistencies, and lapses in logic, most of them are easy to forgive within the action film framework. Other than that, the only other criticism I would raise against the film is that it seems to overstay its welcome by about 20-30 minutes. Director Christopher Nolan takes his own sweet time to develop the characters and tell the story, and it feels like it could have been tightened up a bit. Otherwise, it's a fantastic new start for one of my favorite comic book characters, and I'm looking forward to future installments - provided they don't mess it up like they did before.