“I warned you about compassion”
In anticipation for the new film The Dark Knight, I found it time to revisit the one that relaunched the franchise—Batman Begins. With an all-star cast and Christopher Nolan at the helm, everything seemed to be in place for a true telling reminiscent of the latter day comic books starring everyone’s favorite vigilante. Batman had become very dark and brooding since the days of Adam West’s Bangs! and Pows! Here was finally the chance to show that drama and ethos behind what makes Bruce Wayne hide in costume to take down criminals. As an origin story, you won’t find many better; as a comic book adaptation, you will be hard-pressed to do the same. Not without its faults, especially falling into the trap of so much exposition that there is only enough time for a whimper of a final confrontation with the villain, this film ushered in the trend to cater comic book material to adults. All those little kids who grew up reading the stories are older and the new audience is more attuned to the violence and psyche at play. Nolan and company realize this and have crafted a gritty beginning to a beloved character, complete with all the anger and vengeance that shaped who he was to become.
Starting with a nice sequence of flashbacks mixed within the natural progression of our entry point, we are treated to Bruce Wayne’s life and struggle within it, which pushed him to go underground amongst those he wished to rid the world of. A criminal himself, practicing his fighting skills, Wayne soon becomes acquainted with Henri Ducard, the right hand man of the “immortal” Ra’s Al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows. He trains and learns the ways of the ninja to conquer his fears and be the ultimate machine needed to go against the crumbling world, specifically the devolved cityscape of Gotham. Finding out the truth of the group, that they wish to destroy in order to have a rebirth, Wayne leaves the hostile situation to return home and do what he can as a symbol for hope. Back in Gotham, he must walk the tightrope of keeping his crime fighter persona as secret as possible, namely by being the hardest partying, biggest spending millionaire the city has ever seen. By showing the world his playboy ways, he is free to consume his real self in honing his skills and toys to making sure Batman has all he needs to succeed on the streets.
There is of course an elaborate scheme at play, one to release a toxin in the air that makes people fear everything around them. Through this heightened sensory perception, they will turn on each other, killing and destroying everything in their wake for self-preservation. When a horse appears to breath fire in the mind of one’s drugged eyes, how can he be blamed for wanting to take action against a monster? This plan is intertwined between the streets, the bought and sold government, and outside forces finding their way into the city. Manufactured by psychiatrist Jonathan Crane, this toxin is used to make people insane, thus locking them in his Arkham Asylum for experimentation and silencing of whatever nefarious information they may know. He works for the crime boss Carmine Falcone yet someone higher up on the food chain is really pulling the strings. And while all this is going on, Bruce must also battle the fact that he has returned home to a company slowly slipping through his fingers. The men he needs are being let go and those he can’t trust are turning the business over to the public domain. In order to keep his split life complete with whatever he may need, at no risk from anyone asking questions, something must be done.
While the villainy may be lacking in scope, you have to be able to forgive the film. It is chock full of so many characters and relationships that need to be fleshed out. You almost have to give it credit for the amount of time it allocates towards those means because of all the groundwork necessary to be laid out for the subsequent films. We are given the relationship between Bruce and his parents, the complicated bond between he and childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes, he and Alfred his confidant, the introduction of policeman Jim Gordon and other allies such as Lucious Fox, not to mention the multiple villains molding the way for future evildoers to show face—The Joker anyone? Credit must go to the stellar acting for making it all work. Christian Bale was inspired casting to perfection. He may scowl too much under the mask, but his charisma and physique help lend credibility to the dual role, showing how he can be successful at both lives without pause. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are true professionals and play their respective roles of Alfred and Fox to the letter; Gary Oldman is a chameleon given a bit less than hoped as Gordon, by the script, yet paving the way for the next installments; and even Katie Holmes as Dawes doesn’t do as bad a job as I initially thought at first glance, although I won’t be shedding any tears watching her replacement in The Dark Knight.
The villains are also well portrayed for the most part. If you can get past Tom Wilkinson’s horridly hammy accent, he gets the role down pretty good. Ken Watanabe does well in a mysterious performance only enhancing the mystique behind his Ra’s Al Ghul and Cillian Murphy is creepiness personified. When Murphy must go into his own insanity and don the Scarecrow mask, he is a force to be feared—parents be warned if bringing in small children. And lastly comes Liam Neeson. As he showed in The Phantom Menace, who better to be the sage teacher, bestowing education onto the minds of those that will sponge it up completely. When that voice is heard, you stop what you’re doing and listen fully.
Batman Begins gets everything it needs right, bringing up the slack of those moments when it doesn’t quite succeed. I hope that in the next film we will be treated to some more choreographed fight sequences as opposed to the quick cut, chopped up ones here. The clarity is there and the action is intense, but it’s all just flashes and movement. If you are going to instill this fantasy tale with realism, there should be some long take battles a la the Bourne Series, something to make those in the audience salivate at the craft and precision that went into it all. If the standalone tale is somewhat slight, the exposition and history is definitely not. Once the final credits role, you will know without a doubt who Bruce Wayne is and why he does what he does. Now that all the backstory is explained, we can be treated to the next chapter unencumbered by the need to learn. This time we can just go for the ride and see where Nolan decides to take us next. I for one can’t wait.
Batman Begins 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½