June 15, 2005
Bale Gives Us Dark Evolution of ‘Batman’
"Your anger gives you great power - but if you let it, it will destroy you." Advice from the manipulative Chancellor Palpatine to malleable Anakin Skywalker, as the young Jedi teeters on the edge of becoming Darth Vader in the most recent "Star Wars" prequel? Close.
Those words of warning actually come from the mysterious mentor to Bruce Wayne, the industrial heir on the verge of embracing his own dark side for the sake of good and transforming himself into Batman in "Batman Begins."
Although we all know which came first in this chicken-and-egg scenario, comparisons between these summer blockbusters are inevitable, as both reveal the back stories of iconic pop-culture figures.
Some of the same sorts of revelations that give "Revenge of the Sith" a sense of geeky adolescent wonder surface here, too: the joy of discovering how Bruce (Christian Bale) develops the Batcave, the Batsuit and the Batmobile (rendered here like a gas-guzzling Hummer, nothing like the sleek Corvette-style Batmobile in which Michael Keaton tooled around the streets of Gotham back in 1989).
But except for a few quips from the formidable supporting cast - including Michael Caine as an ideal Alfred the butler and Morgan Freeman as Bruce's equivalent of Q from the James Bond films - "Batman Begins" is suffocatingly self-serious. And to continue the comparison, that only makes "Sith" look superior.
Yes, the Dark Knight is supposed to be a tormented soul, having witnessed his parents' murder and used that guilt and anger as the inspiration for his nighttime forays into vigilante justice. You won't find any nipples in the Batsuit here, which should appease the purists who were appalled by the Joel Schumacherization of the franchise with "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin" in the mid-1990s.
But at least Schumacher (and Tim Burton more successfully before him) put their own directorial stamps on their films. It's hard to tell that "Batman Begins" began with Christopher Nolan, the mastermind behind "Memento," one of the most inventive films in recent memory.
As director and co-writer (with David S. Goyer, who also wrote the "Blade" movies based on the comic books), Nolan takes an admirable stab at developing a character-driven drama, only to give in to generic action-movie conventions with a blinding, deafening, explosion-laden finale that could have capped off any number of interchangeable Jerry Bruckheimer flicks.
There are also some surprising inconsistencies throughout the script, such as the jarring morning-after-the-destruction scene, and the fact that Bruce is presumed dead for seven years while secretly training to become Batman (Liam Neeson plays his mentor, yet another "Star Wars" reminder), and no one is shocked to see him alive and well when he returns to save Gotham from crime and corruption.
Then again, this Batman isn't exactly a live wire himself. While Bale is beautiful, chiseled and self-possessed, he has a steely detachment behind his eyes - a quality that served him well in the starring role in "American Psycho," but renders him almost passionless here.
But the weakest link of all is Katie Holmes as Bruce's childhood friend and vague love interest, Rachel Dawes. Part of the problem is that this is a man's world - at least it will be until Catwoman shows up in a couple of episodes - so her role is underdeveloped, and part of the problem is the casting itself. It is simply too difficult to accept the former "Dawson's Creek" star, with her exceedingly youthful good looks and little-girl voice, as a tough-as-nails assistant district attorney who represents one of the last bastions of morality in this decaying urban cesspool.
Speaking of Nolan's Gotham, with help from cinematographer Wally Pfister (who also shot "Memento" and Nolan's "Insomnia"), it is a visually striking mixture of images. It's almost Chicago, only a little slicker and a little grittier at the same time.
But another of the film's attempts at relevance - a threat of foreign terrorists spreading poison through the city's water supply to create massive communal panic - comes off as a clunky reflection of real-life homeland security concerns.
It's a little too tabloid- and cable-news-ready for a character, and a story, that are timeless.
"Batman Begins," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic element. Running time: 137 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.
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