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"Batman Begins"

Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (the "Blade" trilogy; the upcoming "Ghost Rider").
Starring Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.
Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  6/20/05

Folks-- 

The 1989 Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson flick "Batman" holds a special place in my heart; it was 16 years ago (!!!) that I fell in love with the big-screen comic book adaption, something that at the time had not quite been hacked to pieces and that drew great actors, big budgets, a visionary at the helm (Tim Burton) and a soundtrack that mixed maybe the best score ever by Danny Elfman and the flawed-yet-funny idea that Prince could pull off a title track.  (Sorry, Dad...I know how much you love your boy!)  I still can't believe that Nicholson wasn't nominated for an Oscar that year; the performance is brilliant, demonic, hilarious, you name it...and, as everyone knows, Keaton's career was at its peak after the first "Batman" film, only to die in the misery that is "White Noise."

The Bat-films that followed were various forms of horseshit, none more abysmal than "Batman & Robin", still to this day the only film that drove Dave Bell nearly insane.  (Those that were in attendance that day still remember Dave's reaction to Coolio hangin' out onscreen:  "Man, that guy's a fuckin' sellout!")  Even the 1966 film version of the campy TV show with Adam West & Burt Ward was a dog, but what did you expect with acting slightly better than a high school play?  So, at first I was worried when I heard that some asshole decided it was time for a Bat-remake.

But, back in December, I read somewhere that Christopher Nolan--the director of my favorite film of 2000, "Memento"--was going to direct the new Batman flick, so I figured I had to check this one out...and, in the ways that you would expect with Nolan--character, story, pacing--"Batman Begins" delivers.  This go-round, we start from, uh, the beginning, as we get the recap of what happens after Bruce Wayne loses his very-financially-secure parents in a robbery attempt as a child; Bruce (played in adult years by Christian Bale) grows up rich but unhappy and after getting tired of seeing his hometown Gotham run by local criminals, he skips town and ends up somewhere in Asia, gets caught committing low-level crimes and is tossed into jail, where he is discovered one day by Ducard (Liam Neeson), a member of the League of Shadows.  This League is hell-bent on eradicating crime in major cities, so after Bruce is broken out of prison he journeys to the League's HQ to learn their ways, many of which make their way into the Bat-handbook in later years.

After this prologue, Bruce heads back to Gotham, only to find the city in worse shape than ever; along with his long-time butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and a scientist at his family's business, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce begins to craft an alter ego that he can use to fight crime in his hometown.  He'll need all the help he can get to take on the local mob boss (Tom Wilkinson), a shady mental health doctor (Cillian Murphy), and the doctor's boss, not to mention a bunch of thugs bent on making life tough for the Batguy.

Thanks to the bevy of great actors in this film, "Batman Begins" has a strange big-budget independent film feel to it, mostly to good effect.  Freeman and Caine are big-time, certainly, but their penchant for understatement works well against the backdrop of what looks like a ridiculously expensive production.  Add in Gary Oldman, former Oscar nominees Wilkinson and Ken Watanabe (from "In the Bedroom" and "The Last Samurai", respectively), castoffs like Rutger Hauer and even a cameo from renowned international star Rade Serbedzija--he's the homeless guy floating around--and you have some great work that isn't swallowed up by big special effects, big action sequences and the big Wayne Manor of this film.  Hell, even Katie Holmes, who has gone indie for the majority of her film career with "The Gift", "Go" and "Pieces of April", is pretty solid as well.

The story is great and is mixed well between present and past events; the flow of the dialogue is great, never too cheesy or over-the-top; the score is good, not fantastic, but it does the trick; the atmosphere is appropriate but admittedly, I liked the darker feel of the 1989 version better.  I did love the effect that the Scarecrow mask had on his victims, none better than when it is turned on himself, making the Batman mask look like it was puking tar, to strong effect.  "Batman Begins" feels a lot like "Star Wars Episode III" in its prequel-ness; you love seeing the makings of the Batcave, or the first iteration of the Batmobile (essentially a tank, the "tumbler" might be the coolest thing in the movie), or the first efforts of Wayne to come up with a costume, or how to fly, or how to carve out a social life while fighting crime.

All of that stuff is cool.  The two things I didn't like, enough to bring it down a grade:

1) The action.

I am tiring of the new tendency of action films to show me action from too close a vantage point; by this, I mean that I had real trouble figuring out what was happening during fistfights pretty much the whole time I was watching "Batman Begins", an easy problem to solve if we just move the camera back about 15 feet.  As an example, the first fight scene, where Bruce is attacked by a bunch of guys in that Asian prison.  After the assailants fall into the courtyard, you are essentially watching a mob attack Bruce, and then you get 20 seconds of punching sounds, guys getting walloped, camerawork so fast and close that you can't really even tell where Bruce is, and then about 10 prisoners laying around in pain, apparently whooped by Bruce/Batman to pieces.  Wish I could have seen it.  All of the fight scenes in "Batman Begins" are this way, and in general, they suck.  I also found myself laughing whenever I watched Liam Neeson beat the hell out of someone; come on.  The one set piece I did like was the car chase where Bruce drives all over Gotham trying to get his girl an antidote.  The driver-seat-pull-forward-to-periscope/fire car weapons mode was sexy-hot.

2) The bad guys.

As I noted, I do think the Scarecrow mask/poison thing is cool.  (I also loved the little nod to Crane and the Headless Horseman, which I think about 100% of my audience missed as I cackled in my seat.)  Otherwise, our villains here suck.  I understand that you have to build up to big-time baddies--Penguin, Joker and Freeze, for starters--but the mob boss, Scarecrow, and the head of the League of Shadows just didn't measure up.  They also weren't, well, very evil, which brought down the coolness a little bit for me.  ("Hey Gotham, we're going to poison your water and make you go all crazy-like...that'll learn ya!")  This will certainly be addressed in future films, should Bale & Co. sign on to do more of these things, but even attempting to one-up the Nicholson-as-Joker performance strikes this loyal man as blasphemy.

Otherwise, very strong stuff, and this (kinda) erases the bad memories I have about Tommy Lee Jones attempting to do comic book by playing Two-Face in "Batman Forever."  Hopefully Nolan will come back to do a sequel.

Rating:  $9.50 Show

 

Comments?  Drop me a line at justin@bellviewmovies.com.

 

Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too bad...man, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/bellviewmovies.com except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09