All cultures seem to require some form of mythology, something to tell grand tales of good versus evil. For modern America these myths often take the form of our comic book heroes and villains. One of the most famous is Batman, the Dark Avenger. Although many feel that the movie franchise of the last decade did not give proper credit to this larger than life character Batman is too set in our collective culture not to give it another try. Batman Begins relates the story of just how super rich Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) came to choose the physically demanding and emotionally draining alter ego of Batman. This is not so much a story concerned with Batman; it is about Wayne and the path he took to become the notable hero. As the movie opens Wayne is being tortured in some far away country. He has been on a quest to discover the nature of evil, a response to the emotional scars left by witnessing the murder of his parents. He is rescued by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who begins a brutal and arduous martial arts training program. Once Wayne is considered ready Ducard tries to recruit him into the Legion of Shadows, an organization that plots diabolical acts of evil. His initiation assignment is to commit an assignation, something Wayne cannot bring himself to do. This results in a rift between Wayne and his mentor, creating for Bruce a bitter and powerful enemy. Wayne feels that it is time to call an end to his sojourn and return finally to Gotham. Once there he discovers that Wayne Corp. is now under the control of Earle (Rutger Hauer) a corporate heavy weight that makes Ivan Bosky look like an amateur. Wayne also finds an ally in the person of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a brilliant weapons designer that is willing to supply Wayne with the prototypes of numerous high tech armaments. Fox really doesn’t want to hear the details, plausible deniability is very important to him. Among the goodies that Fox provides is the Batmobile. This is a far cry from the ones we have seen in the past, it will turn every man that watches into a car lusting teenager again. It is not slick but it is powerful. To cover his true calling Wayne adopts the persona of the filthy rich, drunken party boy. Gotham has become the Mecca of corruption, it appears that the only two honest people left in public service are Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), an Assistant District Attorney and childhood friend of Wayne and police Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Gordon is facing a staggering amount of crime mostly at the behest of crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and the evil psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who has the tendency to have anyone in his way sent to the insane asylum. Crane also has an alter ego, the evil Scarecrow. After all what is a Batman movie without a super villain? Scarecrow’s dastardly plot is a time honored one, dump a psychedelic drug in the water supply of Gotham and take over the city.
The first observation about this film is it is dark, more like the recent graphic novels than the much lighter comics many of us remember from our youth. As noted before it is not a Batman film in the true sense, The Dark Knight’s appearance is delayed, allowing the tension to build until we are elated to see the caped form come out of the darkness. It is very rare that a film based on a comic book character takes the time to let the exposition unfold. One of my favorite issues of comic have always been the ‘Secret Origins’ ones, where the back story of the hero or villain is laid out. Here, the story is more psychological drama with a healthy dose of action supplied for good measure. The car chase with the new Batmobile is up there with the French Connection and Bullet for action and sheer excitement. The story comes on like sitting in a bath and adding hot water, it surrounds you, growing almost imperceptibly hotter with each passing moment. Every aspect of this Batman is somehow more primitive than its processors, this is the prototype Batman, rough around the edges and thankfully devoid of the overly slick incarnations recently used in film.
Christian Bale is no stranger to dark roles such as this. He was chilling in his portrayal of the title character in American Psycho. While he played a sociopath in that film he seems to have drawn heavily on that role to present the growing darkness and need for revenge in Bruce Wayne. This is a far cry from the sixties Bruce with his ‘lets go to the batpoles chum.’ His Wayne is a deeply troubled man, one with an excess of emotional baggage but with the financial and physical means to try to bring some justice to a world that failed him. Gary Oldman has always been one of my favorite villains on screen. No one plays over the top bad guys like he does. Here, he is afforded an opportunity to show the true depths of his talents with the honest James Gordon. He gives us a man that went into law enforcement to make a difference only to find out the criminals practically own the city he tries to serve. Liam Neeson seemed to have had a little Jedi master left over from Star Wars Episode One, except here he is defiantly on the dark side. He has the right nature to play the wise mentor and it shows here. Cillian Murphy was absolutely perfect as the Scarcrow. He shows some restraint in his performance never letting his villain become comical, always keeping him sinister and foreboding. It almost seems that the producers realized they needed some feminine element to the film and added the role of Rachel for Katie Holmes. She serves well but is under utilized in this film. A special nod of appreciation must be given to Michael Caine whose great talent has taken him through the years from Alfie to Alfred with grace and excellence.
This film was being batted around the studios for years with many changes in direction, cast and writers. Usually, this is a very bad sign but here they held out for just the right combination. Having Christopher Nolan direct was sheer genius. He is a director that likes to think out of the box, to throw away convention and do things in a novel and fresh fashion. Just look at his reverse timeline classic Memento and you will see the work of a man not tied to conformity. He paces this film perfectly. While many big budget blockbusters feel obligated to start off big Nolan chose to build one layer upon another to tell the story. He doesn’t insult the audience by thinking they can not put the pieces together. There is almost a film noir feel to the film, one that is part mystery instead of mindless stunts every five minutes.
Warner Brothers has chosen to release this film on three separate variations; Pan & Scan, Widescreen and Deluxe. Forget the first two and stick with the deluxe edition. In most places the price difference is only about to dollars and you get so much more. All three feature a robust Dolby 5.1 that will pull you into the world of the film. The sound effects are incredibly mastered, the sounds zip around the room at a fast pace. The anamorphic 2.40:1 video (I won’t even consider the P&S monstrosity) is excellent. The many dark scenes show no sign of compression artifacts or edge enhancements. For your extra $2 you get a well planned set of extras. Genesis of the Bat takes you through the many incarnations of Batman from the mid eighties to now. It would have been nice to go all the way back but it is interesting. The Journey Begins looks at the chore of casting this film, writing the story and bringing it to reality. Cape and Cowl considers the changes and look of the new Batman costume. Path to Discovery is a travelogue of filming in Iceland and Saving Gotham City gives behind the scenes looks at the chase scene. There is also a 72 page comic book that includes the first appearance of Batman in Detective comics. In all forget the previous versions of the Batman story, start fresh with this one and enjoy.