REVIEW #2: "Batman Begins"

Wed, June 15th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

TV/Film
Seth Jones, Staff Writer

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The next time any of us -- and that includes Christopher Nolan and David Goyer -- see "Batman: Year One" artist David Mazzucchelli, buy him a drink.

Because "Batman Begins" was that cool.

Was it the Casa Blanca of comic movies? No. Was it an entertaining 2 hours and 14 minutes? You can bet your utility belt, brother.

There's no blimpy Bane planting bombs, moaning "bomb!" in this flick. We get Ra's Al Ghul, the Demon's Head, the baddest of the bad, along with some quality Scarecrow screen time. And don't forget the ninjas. Do not forget the ninjas! They're in the dark corners of the screen. You just can't see them until they're on top of you.

Everything is better with ninjas. It's like extra cheese on your pizza. You might not be sure it's there, but just the fact that it could be makes it better.

I'm Batman

The big question: Christian Bale as Batman?

Pretty good... at times great.

As Bruce Wayne?

Excellent.

The challenge for portraying Batman is the voice. In short sound blasts, Bale's bat-voice is excellent. In longer sentences, it's a little weird.

There's a scene where he's shaking down a corrupt cop for information, yelling at him in a gravelly voice. This is the way Batman sounds.

And then there are other times, like when he's repeating lines to Rachel Dawes (portrayed by the one weak link of the movie, Katie Holmes) -- sadly, he sounds more like a rookie professional wrestler in character. You're waiting for him to call out, "Hulk Hooooogan!" But it's by no means a deal-breaker -- he still does some great work in the bat-suit.

In the action scenes as Batman, he looks great. When he's hand-to-hand fighting, there's furious moments in the action that properly depict the way Batman would handle himself in the battlefield. A great battle scene takes place against the Scarecrow and his cronies, and the Batman is in his hardcore glory, smashing a thug's face into a bathroom mirror, taking no prisoners along the way. If it were a comic, Simon Bisley would have to draw this chaos.

His portrayal of Bruce Wayne is spot-on. He looks like the character. He has the swagger. The attitude. He is Bruce Wayne. Bale did not let down as Bruce Wayne.

Crime Alley

It has to be a treat to recreate the moment that defines Batman -- the murder of his parents in Crime Alley. It's the most important moment of this modern day myth.

It's a disturbing scene. You know what's coming, but every time you want something different to happen, for Joe Chill to have mercy, for a golden age Green Lantern to swoop down and stop it, something, anything. And then when the shots ring out it's a shock to the system, even though this is the one thing you know will happen in the movie.

What you don't know is how the scene will come off on-screen. In this case, Nolan beautifully choreographs the action. When the dust settles, and Bruce is left sitting there alone surrounded by his dead parents, a comic fan gets a special treat: The image of Bruce on his knees with a somber expression is taken directly from Frank Miller and Mazzucchelli's Year One. Nolan lets it sit there for just an extra second, to really burn it into your head.

And he even adds an extra kick in the gut, by putting the Wayne family in that alley because of Bruce's fear and inability to stay in the theater. It may be a minor tweak, but it makes for a great inspiration for Bruce to put on pointy ears and fight crime in his adult life.

Batman in training

One thing about this movie that you'll definitely feel is that there is a lot going on. The creative team gets their two-hours plus out of this one, taking Bruce Wayne to an exotic locale to train to be the Dark Knight.

What you won't feel is the "get on with it" feeling that sometimes comes with an origin story. You know how it is -- the director is spinning his wheels with a big set-up, while you just want to see "Hulk smash!"

Not in "Batman Begins." The training is hardcore. It's exciting. It may have been my favorite part of the movie. It's grassroots Batman.

And it's total payoff for a bat-geek.

Gotham City

Gotham is finally a real place. Was it important? Well, this is a comic book movie. But there's something more satisfying when a car pulls out and it's a Ford Taurus, rather than a black light-lit, neon-glowing low rider.

Seems like it wasn't that long ago that fellow CBR staffers Jonah and Augie were headed to downtown Chicago during Wizard World to watch the Batmobile scenes getting filmed (note to self: next time Jonah invites you to dinner, you say yes). And seeing the Bat-mo-tank cruising down areas of Chicago makes for more exciting scenes for this bat-fan. In the scope of the whole picture, the more realistic setting matches up with the attempt to make the character more real, even if the action is unreal.

The Scarecrow

I thought Cillian Murphy was fantastic as the Scarecrow. In fact, I'll give him the line of the movie right now. When Batman is lurking in the girders above head, the Scarecrow's lackeys freak out. One asks, "What's that?" to which the Scarecrow (out of costume as Dr. Crane) replies in his creepy psychotic voice, "It's the Bat... Man." A big crazy grin spreads across his face, his stringy hair and body language really selling the character.

I would have liked to have seen more of the Scarecrow. And I will say this -- he goes out like a punk. But his scenes were still great.

Another benefit of the Scarecrow was his weapon -- gas. Whenever someone gets gassed by the Scarecrow, the viewer is in for a treat, and also the reason why this movie got a PG-13 rating. The horror a victim witnesses when under the influence of the Scarecrow gas is quality. We get several versions of the Scarecrow under the influence of gas, but when a character sees Batman under the same gas -- that's great theater.

Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes

As I mentioned earlier: the one weak link of the movie. And it probably isn't her fault. She just had an unlikable and yet typical character. One of those characters that makes you look at your friends during the film and whisper, "Give me a break..."

I won't dwell on this. She had limited screen time. I wish we could have forsaken her character for more Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, but...

Ra's Al Ghul

You're going to love Ra's. What a great idea, finally getting him into the movies. Great casting here, again. The fight scenes and the overall noble-yet-evil that Ra's has going for him in the comic are properly portrayed on film.

My only question: I always thought it was a long 'A' in 'Ra's.' Like, "Ray's." But it's "Rahz" in the movie. Wasn't the long 'A' part of the logo in the Ra's Al Ghul comics? Maybe I'm crazy...

The last reel

As much as I enjoyed the movie overall, it's demise was the grand finale. The ending action scenes just weren't edge-of-your seat material. It didn't hit as hard as I thought it would. It's one of the few things that kept if from being "excellent."

The final showdown was brief... it was dramatic, yet... it didn't pit the two main characters against each other like the geek in me wanted to see. The earlier fight scenes with Ra's and Bats were better. It was almost like they had to wrap it up quick, and I'm sure a film maker would see that and say, "No, no way," but that's the way it felt for this Bat-fan. I didn't sense the audience was quite in the palm of Ra's Al Ghul, fearing that Batman and Gotham might lose.

And one dangling plot point, and it's a major spoiler, so stop now if you don't want to think about it beforehand...

The shadiest side of Gotham -- the island -- is gassed, and apparently left to consume themselves with madness. Lucius Fox has already made an antidote that we need to get to everyone... and after Rachel Dawes delivers it to Jim Gordon, we never see it again. The movie ends... everyone on the island apparently got better? I know things are fine downtown, but what happened to the slum?

Or did they slip this in somewhere in the end and I missed it? Thank goodness I'm ready to see it again and again...

Overall

Great movie. Go see it. If I were to rate it on a 5-batarang scale, I'd give it a solid 4 batarangs. That fifth I'd save to cut down on the lovely Katie Holmes' insufficient character...

The Batman franchise

It's in great shape. There's a great ending to this, and Bale is signed on for two more Bat-films. Go kick the Joker's butt in part two, work on the voice, keep Robin out of this, and DC officially has their darker rival for "Spider-Man" at the box office.

Other random thoughts

  • This is the first preview I've been to where security checked everyone's cell phone for photo-taking capability. If you had a camera phone like I do, you lose -- take it back to the car. And then, upon return, I was wanded with the remote metal detectors.

    I think it's easier getting into the Batcave. But hey, as long as the terrorists, or the bootleggers, whoever, lose -- then it's cool with me.

  • Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon sounds great, but the poor guy hardly got any scenes. Hopefully this will change in future episodes. Oldman, in my book, is the best actor in the film.

  • Morgan Freeman was also great, but that's expected. Freeman could have phoned his role in and still done great work. And he also has a close runner-up on line of the movie. "Didn't you get the memo?"

  • The two previews we got were for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Dukes of Hazzard. I would have sat there for the seven hours straight to see all three if they offered. What a great movie season this is shaping up to be.

  • Does anyone else realize that we're in this special time in comic book history where fans are being treated to millions of dollars of hard work to bring their favorite books to life? After seeing "Sin City" (and being totally blown away) I see what it arguably the best incarnation of Batman on film yet. Now "Fantastic Four" isn't far away, and even if it isn't great, that's only to whet my appetite for "V for Vendetta," which I'm sure will be the greatest comic film ever...

    If only comics weren't more expensive than a gallon of gasoline, it would be a fantastic time to be a comic fan.

 
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