From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.
So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.
Buzz has been building for the fifth Batman installment since Warner Bros. first announced they’d selected Christopher Nolan as director. It continued to build with each bit of casting news: Michael Caine as the butler Alfred, Liam Neeson as the mentor Ducard, Morgan Freeman as the Q-like Lucius Fox, and Christian Bale as the Dark Knight himself.
It really sounded like Warner was trying desperately to erase the vile aftertaste of the much-maligned Batman and Robin after seeing that, when done right, comic books movies can be both good and lucrative (see: Spider-man 2, X2). Now, the movie is here, and the inevitable “does it suck?” question can be answered.
Batman Begins not only doesn’t suck, but is easily the best Bat-flick of the bunch and arguably the best comic book movie to date.
Unlike the previous installments, where Batman was already a fixture in Gotham, this movie starts out with Bruce Wayne (Bale) in prison halfway across the world, having been traveling for years in search of a way to assuage his guilt and rage over his parents’ murder. He’s recruited by Ducard (Neeson) and taken in by the League of Shadows, a mysterious vigilante organization led by the equally mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), where he learns to fight. It’s only after he discovers his values and the League’s conflict that he returns to Gotham to take back his company and his city.
The first third of the movie is Bruce Wayne honing his fighting skills with the League of Shadows, interspersed with flashbacks that detail his parents’ murder and Bruce’s hatred for Joe Chill, their killer. When he leaves the League and returns to Gotham, he has to reenter a society he’s been away from for seven years, and learn about the company that his father left.
Some might think this part is “slow,” because the movie is about Batman, but Nolan and writer David Goyer really put the emphasis on the “begins” part of the title. We know that Batman is an ass-kicking vigilante badass, but this is about how he becomes an ass-kicking vigilante badass. They show us where he learned to fight, how he learned to be stealthy, how he learned to strike fear in the hearts of villains everywhere, how he got his cave, and how he came into his famous gadgets and gizmos.
Christian Bale is the best Batman, hands-down (sorry to all you guys who love Michael Keaton). He has a handle on the dual personality, both the billionaire playboy and the ass-kicking crimefighter. You can practically see the anger that fuels him in his quest to save Gotham, as it moves from the uncontrolled rage of a boy searching for vengeance to the righteous wrath of a man determined to bring justice to a city. With Bale, it seems that Bruce Wayne is the mask, and Batman is his true persona.
Although it seems that Gotham is overrun with crime and corruption, there are still a few idealists, people who would also like to see Gotham restored, just like Batman. There is police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few good cops in the department. He’s seen a lot, and it wears on him that nothing he does seems to make any difference because of the opposition he faces, but he’s still a good cop.
Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is the assistant district attorney and Bruce’s childhood friend, who’s the only person with the guts to prosecute the heavy-hitting criminals that overrun the city. (And surprisingly, she did not annoy me.) Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is a scientist/inventor within Wayne Enterprises, and it is he who provides prototypes (originally developed for soldiers) of the tools that Batman uses. And, of course, there is Alfred (Caine) the butler, both a servant and a worried father figure to Bruce who will not let him give up, ever.
Mention must be made of the villains, because every superhero is only as good as those he fights. Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) had a bigger part than expected as the mob boss who owns half of Gotham. He’s arrogant and completely assured of his own power, as we see when a pre-Batman Bruce angrily confronts him in a restaurant on the seedy side of town.
However, Falcone is small potatoes compared to the man who seems to be one of his flunkies, the head psychologist of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Johnathan Crane, a.k.a. the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). At first, Dr. Crane looks like a milquetoast pawn, paid by Falcone to declare his thugs legally insane so they don’t go to jail. Then, it becomes clear that Crane is smart, dangerously smart, and it’s more likely that Falcone is his pawn rather than vice versa. Although some might miss the fun and flamboyant villains of Bat-films past, this one deserves to be Bruce Wayne’s show. And what a damn good show it is.
Another thing to point out is this is not a kid-friendly PG-13. The trailers promised dark and scary, and the movie delivers. With a villain whose main weapon is a hallucinogenic gas that makes people see what they fear, how could it not?
When Batman makes his first true appearance, it’s like watching a short horror movie, except the bad guys are the ones being stalked by an unseen menace. We catch glimpses of Batman, hear the fluttering of his cape, but we don’t see him.
Under the influence of the fear gas, Scarecrow’s mask drips with maggots and his voice sounds like a demon’s. Batman’s eyes glow red and his mouth oozes black goo. This is one scary comic film, and probably not for younger kids the way previous incarnations were.
Batman Begins is an example of a film where everything clicks: from the casting, to the directing, to the setting, to the story. We’ve moved from a neon-cartoony Gotham and a Batsuit with nipples to a believable metropolitan area and a hero whose barely-checked rage makes him almost as dangerous as the criminals he fights. Realistic? Yes. Dark? Yes. Good? Fantastic.
Batman begins, indeed.