Bat to Basics
Hello again, everyone and welcome to another edition of the film review column that's changing hats so often this week its in danger of getting friction burns to its scalp. Though having said that, the issue of dual identities seems a weirdly apposite one in the light of this week's movie being Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, latest installment in a franchise long famed for its hype, aesthetic rigour, and faintly silly episode titles.
This being a compehensive root-and-branch reboot (perhaps that should be 'rebat') of the series, it kicks off with the far-eastern adventures of troubled Gotham City billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as he struggles to come to terms with the murder of his parents many years earlier. Seeking to strike back at the forces of fear and corruption dragging Gotham down into a urban squalour and venality, he has managed to get himself slung into the Chinese chokey where he spends his days duffing up the other convicts seven at a time (rather distractingly, one of his cellmates is played by Mr Lee off the Ministry of Mayhem). However, he is approached by Ducard (Liam Neeson doing his mentor schtick again), an agent of the enigmatic master assassin Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who offers to train him to become a living weapon for justice, more than a man, a symbol to strike terror into the hearts of cowardly and superstitious criminals. But what is Ra's al Ghul's real agenda?
Back in Gotham, things go from bad to worse - gang boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) has aligned himself with loopy psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). In exchange for Crane allowing Falcone's men to cop insanity pleas pretty much on demand, Falcone is supplying the doctor with drugs and manpower to pursue a mysterious and literally frightful scheme of his own. This alliance is rapidly threatened as the Gotham underworld comes under ferocious attack by a mysterious lone vigilante - a lone crusader calling himself Batman...
Well, following the near-total disaster of 1997's Batman and Robin (a film which, let us not forget, virtually ended the A-list careers of Chris O'Donnell and Alicia Silverstone, and nearly did for George Clooney too), it's taken Warner Brothers and DC a while to get their act together. I'm glad to say that it has been worth the wait, as this is a superior blockbuster. Everything from the previous films has been dumped (apart from the choice of Ra's and the Scarecrow as the villains, which was apparently agreed for the proposed 'Batman 5' even before the last movie came out) and the result is a film that is neither torpedoed by hideous neon camp not smothered by its own art direction.
It also manages the neat trick of fitting in a huge amount of Bat-mythology without making this too obvious (Frank Miller's Batman: Year One donates a huge amount, for example). I suspect this is mostly down to David Goyer's hand in the script. Goyer is Hollywood's first choice of screenwriter when it comes to superhero movies, though he's more often seen working for Marvel these days. Anyway, Michael Caine plays Alfred Pennyworth, Gary Oldman plays Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox, and even a fairly obscure villain like Zsasz gets a cough and a spit cameo. Present as new characters, and making rather less impression, are Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne's love interest (ever a thankless task, unless your name is Selina Kyle), and Rutger Hauer as a corporate sleazebag. The performances are, as you'd expect, uniformly strong and give the film a good bit of gravitas.
When it comes down to it, though, this is still a blockbuster at heart. It doesn't take that many risks, nor veer too far from the mainstream. Nolan's direction is slick and steady rather than spectacular, and the action sequences are rather variable - some of the fight scenes are a bit murky, but there's a stupendous car chase involving the new Batmobile, basically a stealth bomber on wheels. The film is overlong at nearly two and a half hours, and the narrative is a touch bitty in the midsection. (There is a pretty good twist near the end though.) But it's very enjoyable, putting some smart new twists on the famous legend, and the promise is there of great things to come in the sequels Nolan and Goyer are plainly already thinking of. A very good bet for an entertaining night out; Reed and co are going to have to be really fantastic to beat this.