Wow! How do you spell `Wow" backwards? Sorry, that is an inside joke, a reference to my review of Christopher Nolan's "Memento", but an equally fitting reference to my feelings about Christopher Nolan's re-imagining of "Batman Begins".
Ducard (Liam Neeson) waits for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a jail cell, somewhere in Asia. He tells Wayne about a mysterious group of men he works with, who train to rid the world of evil. Arranging for his release, Ducard tells him how to find their camp. There, Wayne meets Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, "The Last Emperor"), the leader of the League of Shadows, a group of highly trained men determined to make the world a safe place. Upon completion of his training, Wayne travels back to Gotham and finds the city in a state of decay. His former girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is a District Attorney working to clean up the increasingly corrupt political system. She realizes that a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, "28 Days Later"), is transferring all of a local crime lord's (Tom Wilkinson) henchmen into his custody at Arkum Asylum. Alfred (Michael Caine) welcomes Wayne back to his ancestral home, Wayne Manor. As Bruce announces his plans, Alfred becomes a confidant and assistant. Meeting Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), an inventor employed by Wayne Industries, Wayne begins to assemble the arsenal necessary for his transformation to Batman. As he begins to fight the evil in Gotham, he meets Sergeant Gordon (Gary Oldman), perhaps the last honest cop in Gotham.
I am a big fan of the Tim Burton "Batman" films, especially the first one. But Christopher Nolan ("Memento", "Insomnia") has created a whole new vision of the character. I never really read a lot of superhero comic books as a kid. To me, the whole fun of watching the film versions is to witness the mythology of these characters. Some of the characters, like Batman, Superman and Spider Man, have been in our culture for so long they have reached the level of myth. Who doesn't know at least a little of the story of Superman's creation? Or Batman's? In "Batman Begins", Nolan creates a detailed, interesting, exciting film about the origins of Bruce Wayne and his superhero alter ego.
Fitting a lot of information into the film, Nolan moves things along at a breakneck pace. A lot is going on, but it is easy to follow as well because the director uses words, actions, visual references and more to inform us. Isn't this what all directors should do? But how many are successful? This is a tribute solely to the writer and director. As we watch Wayne go through his training, Nolan inserts flashbacks to Wayne's childhood, giving us a glimpse of the fears that have so far shaped his life. The training includes a terrific sequence in which Wayne has to find a particular man, standing amongst identically dressed warriors, as the men move in unison, before fighting him. Upon his return to Wayne Manor, the other characters enter the picture and we learn about them. This is one of the best things about the film; there is so much going on. Just because the film is about a comic book superhero, Nolan didn't feel it necessary to dumb down the plot or the characters or make it simplistic. This is a film for young (well, not too young) and old alike.
There is also a significant amount of humor peppered throughout the film. Wayne's relationships with Alfred (Caine) and Lucius (Freeman) create a lot of the humor, and warmth for that matter, in his life. In one scene, Alfred explains that Wayne needs to keep up appearances as a billionaire playboy, if he wants to divert attention from his alter ego. Therefore, he arrives at a party, in a flashy car, with two models sitting in the passenger seat. Alfred becomes less a butler and more a confidant to Wayne, more so than in any other incarnation of the story. And this works brilliantly, providing him with a sense of history, reason and grounding.
The look of the film is also fantastic. Using real sets, for the most part, the action has a sense of urgency and place. Thankfully, they didn't use CGI to recreate everything, as they did in "Star Wars Episode III". It is my understanding that Chicago provided the backdrop for Gotham, with embellishments created by CGI. When you see it, you will understand why this is so important. Obviously, there is a significant amount of CGI work involved, but using a real backdrop gives the setting a quality that has been lacking in other films lately. All of this work helps to create the world these characters live in, making everything more believable. Because we believe Gotham really exists, the action, the danger and the story all are more believable.
Christian Bale is a really good actor. One thing that can be said of all of his performances is that they are interesting. You might not like the character, or the film, but at least they were interesting. As Bruce Wayne, Bale brings a solemn air, an intensity that works. Wayne has some dark moments in his past and his upbringing and Bale is the right choice for this part. He is also able to inject humor and a lighthearted quality, at times, making the character three dimensional and interesting. When we experience a flashback of a traumatic event in his childhood, it is a very moving moment, because it brings us closer to Bale's portrayal of Wayne.
Let's face it, the supporting cast is fantastic. Any movie that has Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer and Liam Neeson isn't going to be bad. And "Begins" is great, in large part due to the superb work of these actors, Cillian Murphy and even the future Mrs. Tom Cruise. The key to the success of all is that they are all playing the roles seriously. Yes, some of them have slightly humorous moments, but overall, they believe in these characters, their world, their actions. I know I sound like a broken record, but because they believe, we believe.
Michael Caine, in particular, stands out. This, for me, was the most exciting casting choice in the film. The moment I learned that he had been cast to play Alfred, I was very excited. It is such perfect casting. In the role, Caine brings a layer of depth and conviction to the character we haven't seen before. Alfred has invested so much of his life in this family that he deeply cares about their legacy. This is a nice touch to the character and adds a certain amount of gravitas to the role.
Cillian Murphy is also great as Dr. Jonathan Crane. Completely believable, he brings a real sense of menace, creating a memorable villain whose plan is very diabolical and multifaceted. Again, Nolan keeps what could be a complicated idea understandable, by revealing various aspects throughout the story. Murphy is also completely convincing as an American psychiatrist, even though he is Irish. There is no trace of his accent. Murphy has created a small handful of very good performances and appears to be poised to continue this streak.
The story, as mentioned before, is very detailed. Towards the end, there are a few plot twists which surprised me. And I am almost never surprised by plot twists. They are developed well throughout and add a nice layer, creating additional suspense and intrigue.
Nolan also manages to keep the film dark, much like Film Noir, without going too far over the edge. Gotham is drenched in shadow, the streets riddled with crime. The hero and the tone throughout are dark, but broken up by some great action scenes and light hearted humor. As the villain's plan begins to unfold, the story becomes darker and may be too intense for little children. For kids over a certain age, and adults, this just helps the film become that much more... you, know, believable.
There are some terrific action sequences throughout the film. In a couple, as Batman fights the bad guys, the scenes are presented in a unique, almost impressionistic fashion. A glimpse of Batman rappelling down, a shot of thugs getting their heads knocked together, a brief look at another crook flying into the air with Batman. This is a unique idea. Generally, we see every fist hitting flesh, every cut, every ounce of blood spilling. In "Begins", a lot of the action is suggested to us, leaving our minds to sort out the actual details. This idea works really well.
The film also has one of the coolest beginnings I have seen in a long time. Again, rather impressionistic, the opening credits suggest rather than inform.
Generally, I can't stand the thought of a sequel. Can't anyone do anything original in Hollywood? They always have to rely on a sequel? "Batman Begins" was made because Warner Bros. wanted to reenergize the franchise. And Nolan has done that. At the end of the film, there is a brief coda setting up the inevitable sequel. In this case, Nolan suggests that there is so much more to be done with the story, the characters, the villains, that I welcome a sequel.
Bring on the sequels, Mr. Nolan.