Thursday, June 16, 2005

Batman Begins: Refreshingly Un-crappy

Batman Begins opened yesterday to a big-ass overnight box office total (I think it was somewhere in the gazillions), and yours truly joined the throngs of moviegoers who contributed to the film's take.

As much as any other geek worth his or her salt, I dig the Caped Crusader. Batman's human foibles (no superpowers, vengeful chip on shoulder, blah, blah) make him one of my superhero faves, and the character offers ripe and rich fodder for a really phenomenal screen treatment (Hell, the lure of Batman even ensnared cinema master Orson Welles, whose plans for a big-budget Batman feature in the mid-'40's toppled into the Realm of Unwrought Things).

The big motivator for me to join the long line for the new Bat-saga was Christopher Nolan, the gifted young director who helmed one of the best films of the '90's (or maybe ever)--the modern film noir Memento. I'd hoped that Nolan's presence behind the camera on Batman Begins would remove the foul stench of the loud, empty-headed , irritating Bat-flicks that knocked the wind out of the franchise in the '90's.

So has Nolan rescued the Caped Crusader from aesthetic Hell and reinvigorated the Batmythos? In a word, yes. Batman Begins houses some sizeable flaws, but the good things here are so good that it actually makes me look forward to future installments. And when was the last time anyone could say that about a franchise flick?

I won't hash through the basic plotline here. If you've seen any of the other films, the TV show, the cartoons, et al, you know the drill; millionaire's son is orphaned by a criminal's bullets, and a thirst for decisive justice inspires said boy to don funny tights and fight crooks as a grownup in Gotham City.

The shaky first fourth of the movie focuses on Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale's) training in the Himalayas as he learns to harness his fear and his fighting skills, Jedi-style. Nolan's and co-writer David Goyer's screenplay flirts with wince-worthy self-parody here; a charismatic turn by Liam Neeson (as Ducard, the Obi-Wan to Bruce's Luke Skywalker) nearly gets undercut by the ham-fistedness on display.

Once one rides out the first twenty-some minutes, however, Batman Begins drops the Seven Years in Kung Fu Jedi Tibet act and gets extremely entertaining. The movie grows a wry and (for a millenial blockbuster) subtle sense of humor while still lending sufficient respect and gravity to the storyline. This is that rare comic-book film where the exposition (in the movie's center third, at least) is as engaging as the action scenes.

There's no denying the movie's film noir-shaded visual richness (it effectively melds Tim Burton's grand guignol style with Frank Miller's stark darkness), but Nolan's biggest gift proves to be a holdover from his smaller films; namely, his touch with actors. Bale proves an inspired choice for the hero; even when Bruce Wayne plays the Carefree Playboy to cover his Bat-tracks, his haunted eyes betray him (one minor quibble; Bale's gravelly Batman voice does seem a bit much sometimes). Michael Caine, a cinematic Old Reliable if ever there was one, turns the stock role of Alfred the butler into a funny and fully-rounded paternal figure, and Morgan Freeman likewise offers effortless (and witty) work as the Batman's resident gadget go-to guy. Even veteran scenery-gnawer Gary Oldman delivers a restrained performance as the soft-spoken and inherently decent Police Lieutenant Gordon. Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, is given total license to jump into unrestrained waters, and he's riveting as a corrupt asylum psychiatrist-turned demi-supervillain.

With all these quality actors in place and a pitch-perfect second act, it's a bit of a shame that the movie climaxes with an uninteresting and typical explosion-laden setpiece (the derailing train that punctuates the scene holds some unintended symbolism in this context). But for the most part, Batman Begins rates as a solid base hit amongst a genre that usually spawns foul balls and strikeouts. Plus, there are no nipples on the new Batsuit.


JennyB. said...

I still have to get to this movie. I'm encouraged by the fact that my movie geek friends have all given it positive reviews, even raves. So have the fans of the Dark Knight comic.

This past weekend I saw 'Land of the Dead'. Loved it. A little more gore than Romero's previous films, but the social commentary is still there and it's got good bite. If you're a fan of his earlier stuff, I think you'll like his newest.

And now for the mildly weird part of this comment...I think I went to high school with you. Spanaway Lake, Class of 85? My last name was Smith then. :o)

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