Christopher Nolan reinvigorates the Batman franchise
"Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,"
Richard Wilbur, 'Mind'.
Batman Begins offers a fresh take on the caped-crusader, wiping away Schumacher's messy excesses with a return to a darker, more psychological approach. The film details not only the slaying of Bruce Wayne's wealthy socialite parents, but traces the influence of the murders on Wayne's consequent development as the nocturnal crime-fighting hero. Perpetually haunted by painful memories of the past, Wayne ultimately faces his emotional troubles in an active and cathartic way, by confronting the darker sides of a corrupt, crime-ridden Gotham City.
Batman Begins follows Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) as he begins training in China under the guidance of martial-arts expert/vigilante philosopher Ducard (Liam Neeson), who challenges Wayne to a range of duels and mental challenges, including treks through vast glacial landscapes, swordfights on lakes set in ice, and disorientating combat training under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. After a disagreement with some of Ducard's somewhat extremist views on justice and retribution (one review describes Ducard as a "ninja version of Michael Winner"), Bruce Wayne returns home alone to confront and resolve the corrupt urban landscape of Gotham City.
With the help of Michael Caine's witty and affectionate butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman's warm and incisive scientist Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne soon peddles an arsenal of gadgets that would make James Bond wince. Batman Begins even finds time to explore the icon of the bat, presented as a symbol of Bruce's childhood fears and insecurities, and intended to strike a similar fear into the criminal minds of the city.
Since Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, Bale has been an actor-to-watch, and is fast becoming known as a wonder-boy of cult cinema; his performances as psychotic yuppie Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, along with the portrayal of paranoid insomniac Trent Reznick in The Machinist both secure him a place as a traveller of dark, psychological spaces. With Batman, Bale dips his toe into the mainstream and finds the newly designed costume to be a snug fit, retaining his characteristic intensity. Bale betrays a psychotic instability in Bruce Wayne that hasn't been implied since Michael Keaton took up the cape in Burton's gothic double-act.
Among the other cast members, Rutger Hauer raises a smile as the money-crazed top banana of Wayne Enterprises (which seems to confirm the actor's gravitation towards dark and troubling urban dives: Blade Runner, Sin City), while Gary Oldman is a nice surprise as the Commissioner Gordon that is not yet a Commissioner. Not to forget the slick yet spooky Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) as Scarecrow, the outwardly calm and controlled nut that owns the nuthouse; or of course the token love-interest, childhood friend of Bruce Wayne and morally-infallible District Attorney Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes).
Gotham City has been conceived both as gothic neo-fascist fairytale and paint-soaked comic strip, but Batman Begins describes its central location in a more recognisable landscape that - in one sense - plays down the fantastic elements and brings a more realistic feel. Having said that, Nolan's multi-layered backdrop of modern façades and suburban, inner-city grief holes still holds a kind of jaw-dropping power throughout some of the key scenes of the film. The ever-obscuring rain and omnipresent darkness make the city a character in itself, ambiguously shrouded in doubt and uncertainty.
Of course, a film with the legacy of a Batman comic-strip cannot entirely evade corny lines, cheesy accents or over-the-top, death-defying stunts, but that's all part of the fun. Batman Begins is an enjoyable action-adventure film with a dark twist, packed with complex and exhilarating action sequences that convey all the heightened perceptions of an thrilling roller-coaster ride.
A train chase towards the climax of the film offers an exciting hit of The French Connection ('on acid', if you include the hallucinogenic drugs); an exciting mixture of action, combat, and CGI, seamlessly edited together in a way that typifies the film as a whole. Batman Begins not only offers a compelling new twist on what seemed to be an exhausted story, but integrates Nolan's sensibilities for action and its underlying psychological undertones (Memento, Insomnia) into a welcome addition to the Batman mythos.
Christopher Nolan's sequel, Batman: The Dark Knight premieres in the UK on 21st July.