All it takes is the first 10 minutes of “Batman Begins” — where a shockingly grizzly Christian Bale fights off a dozen men in a rural Chinese prison courtyard, mud streaking his face, the sky covered in steely grays and washed-out blues — to make the audience forget a series of corpulent, peevishly Technicolor Joel Schumacher-helmed Batman McMovies and submit to director Christopher Nolan’s rejuvenating, grimy and psychological take on America’s most emblematic hero.
Bale (“American Psycho”), with a diamond-cut jaw line and perfect WASP features, was born to play Bruce Wayne. While his voice as Batman doesn’t reach the dark heights of Michael Keaton’s original take, Bale simply looks exactly as we’d imagine Bruce Wayne — afterall, Bale has done idle yet deeply flawed rich kid before.
For those of us who were denied the singular pleasure of Batman comics by our parents, here’s an unjustly quick primer: Gotham City is America’s largest metropolis with a beyond-seedy underbelly. Nice, old money, philanthropic Wayne family goes to opera. Mom and Dad are killed by a mugger. Son watches parents die, spends formative years on a spiritual quest in Europe and Asia complete with martial arts training and general trust-fund spending. Boy returns to Gotham, puts on big, black rubber suit, redirects newfound thirst for vengeance and decides the only way to clean up his fair city is to catch the criminals that the corrupt city police are too lazy to catch.
Phew. Thirty-plus years of America’s greatest comic book in a single paragraph.
Frank Miller’s gothic, exquisite graphic novel, “Batman: Year One” (on which David S. Goyer and Nolan’s admirable script is loosely based), makes a fine introduction, but many watchers might find it an even more compelling purchase after seeing the film.
Nolan gets infinite credit for not surrounding Bale with random ingénues but instead leaning on a bevy of fantastic actors.
Gary Oldman (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), with his finest performance in recent memory, nails the dually idealistic and battle-hardened Lieutenant Gordon. Michael Caine (“Secondhand Lions”) is a stately Alfred Pennyworth, loyal butler and eventual co-conspirator to Bruce Wayne. Mob boss Carmine Falcone, the thinnest part of the villains, still manages to come to weary, casually violent life thanks to Tom Wilkinson (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).
And lest we forget the Scarecrow.
Cillian Murphy, previously seen fighting a Zombie-infested Europe (no, they weren’t bored kids studying abroad) in “28 Days Later,” not only gets the best costume in hero-movie history, but genuinely disquiets everyone he touches on film.
With his macabre burlap-patchwork mask and canisters of hallucinogenic toxin lurking under the guise of psychiatrist Jonathan Crane, Murphy doesn’t just chew scenery — he maliciously chomps it. If Nolan has any one major fault in plotting, it’s giving too much weight to a more standard, grand-destruction plot (dutifully carried by Liam Neeson and Ken Watanabe) and not enough screen time to Murphy’s gleefully warped mental health professional/villain.
Fitting for the plot’s emphasis on Gotham’s disparity of wealth, the scenery looks like a mash-up of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and slums and Los Angeles’s sprawl, all topped off with a post-industrial shade straight from Detroit. The technology is reasonable, the stock bad guys frighteningly everyday and the most gloomy character is Bale’s Batman. It’s not enough that he looks like he should be Batman; it’s clear he genuinely wants to become Batman.
Refreshing how after four movies stuffed with action-figure repetition, Bale looks like a fan. And hey, with fans like Bale and Nolan, how could anyone think this movie could’ve gone wrong?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars