Thursday, June 9, 2005

Movie Review: Batman Begins

I have seen the Batman and it is glorious.

Purged are the nightmarish memories of Bat-Nipples and the Bat-Credit Card. Washed away are the visions of overacting villains, cartoonishly hamming it up for the lowest common moviegoing denominator while Prince makes a dance mix out of the whole affair. Batman Begins is a gritty, realistic--well, as realistic as you can get--vision of The Man Who Would Become Batman.

We first meet billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in--why not?--a Tibetan prison, from which he is about to be released. He meets a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson at his awesomest.evar), who offers to train him to be an ultimate bad-ass. Of course he accepts. Who wouldn't?

Time passes, drama--and neato action--ensue, and soon enough Bruce heads back to his hometown of Gotham City, where, with the help of his butler, Alfred, and Lucius Fox, an old techie who works at Wayne Industries (Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, lending some incredible weight to their somewhat bit parts), he sets out to create an icon that will strike fear into the hearts of criminals and represent hope for the good people of the ailing Gotham City. Wow, that was a long sentence. And thus Batman is born.

Just in time to combat a new threat to Gotham: The Scarecrow, a bad guy whose shtick is to spray his victims with a poison that sends them into a complete, irreversible state of fear and panic. He's bad enough, but he has an employer--Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe)--who has even bigger, more eviler plans. But Batman is not alone. He has some help from a couple people: police sargeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, playing well against type here as one of the only virtuous, uncorrupt cops left in the city), and a plucky, idealistic assistant DA (Katie Holmes).

What director Christopher Nolan (Memento) and writer David Goyer (Blade) have done is made Batman as real and believable as possible. Gotham City is no longer the creepy gothic berg of the Burton movies or the homoerotic neon wonderland of the Schumacher catastrophes. It's a city where you think people might actually live and work and starve and suffer. Nolan and Goyer also give us a lot of insight into Bruce Wayne's psyche and his motivation. They want us to truly understand why a man would go so far as to dress up in a bat suit to fight crime, and it works. We buy it.

The filmmakers have also captured the essence of what it is that makes Batman so cool: he's a scary motherfucker. Batman Begins is shot not so much as an action superhero flick but as a horror movie, casting the criminals as the victims and Batman as the monster. These thugs are absolutely terrified of him, and justifiably so. Their buddies disappear into shadows, snatched away by... something... with only a loud 'swoosh' to signify that anything happened at all. And when the fighting does happen--and, oh, it happens--it's fast and it's brutal.

With one exception, everything in this flick is top-notch. Everyone (from the filmmakers to the actors to the collaborating composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard) is at the top of their game. The one weak link is Katie Holmes, but it's not her fault. She does what she can with the role and she's not a bad actress. It's not like she's phoning it in like Natalie Portman in the Star Wars movies. But she's miscast. Holmes lacks the edginess that an assistant DA of the criminal-infested Gotham City would have. A character like that should be a little hardened, more worldly and have some balls (think Margot Kidder as Lois Lane). The character is written like that, but Holmes unfortunately isn't the right person to play it like that. At any rate, her role is minor and it doesn't really detract from what is truly a fantastic movie.

You don't have to be a comic fan. You don't have to be a Batman fan. You don't even have to like superhero movies. Anyone who likes movies will appreciate this one as a fine example of good storytelling and filmmaking.

Two snaps in Z-formation.