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Wholly rebound

'Batman Begins' honors the Dark Knight and filmmaking itself.

June 14, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Batman has finally come home. Not just to a story that painstakingly details his origins but to an ominous style that suits it beautifully.

Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" disdains the mindless camp and compulsive weirdness that mostly characterized its quartet of predecessors and unapologetically positions its hero at the dark end of the street. With Christian Bale in the title role, this is a film noir Batman, a brooding, disturbing piece of work that starts slowly but ends up crafting a world that just might haunt your dreams.

In doing this, Nolan, who co-wrote with comic book specialist David S. Goyer, has in effect brought the franchise back to its modern origins. That would be the appearance in 1986, three years before the first Tim Burton film, of Frank Miller's somber and ominous graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," which repositioned Bob Kane's 1939 Caped Crusader as a contemporary figure of almost existential torment.

Nolan's intention with "Batman Begins," however, is to go beyond this and create a myth grounded, as much as myth can be, in plain reality. He wants his story to be as plausible as possible, a human drama set in a believable world that looks like one we could live in but prefer not to. A film that underlines the notion that Batman is that unlikely comic-book hero who does without super powers, someone, the director has said, who "really is just a guy that does a lot of push-ups." A heck of a lot of push-ups.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 14, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
"Batman" actor -- A review of "Batman Begins" in today's Calendar section says Cillian Murphy was last seen in 2002 in "28 Days Later." The actor was last seen in "Intermission" in 2004.

Nolan was a shrewd choice to revive a franchise that has gone eight years without a film. One of the qualities shared by his exceptional but otherwise diverse trio of previous films ("Following," "Memento," "Insomnia") is how skillfully they are put together on a craft level. This "Batman" is a carefully thought out and consummately well-made piece of work, a serious comic-book adaptation that is driven by story, psychology and reality, not special effects.

In fact, with Wally Pfister (who shot Nolan's last two films) as cinematographer, "Batman Begins" tries, despite using multiple special-effects houses, to avoid computer-generated imagery when it can. The film relies instead on shooting in real locations (from the streets of Chicago to a glacier in Vatnajokull, Iceland) and extensive use of miniatures, albeit some whose 35-feet height was made possible by constructing the sets in an enormous former blimp hangar with ceilings that rise to 200 feet. Nolan also did without a second unit, preferring the tonal unity he felt would come from directing everything himself.

Though his name might not have initially been on everyone's lips, Christian Bale turns out to be an excellent fit for Nolan's conception of the Dark Knight. And though he gained back the 63 pounds he lost for "The Machinist" and added an extra 20 for good measure, there is a leanness, a sense of purpose about his performance.

Always a humorless, almost sullen actor, Bale uses those qualities to create a painfully earnest character driven to a life of crime-fighting almost against his will. Bale even employed the physically uncomfortable Batsuit to his advantage: "I used the pain," he has said, "as fuel for the character's anger."

Though Batman's alter ego remains wealthy socialite Bruce Wayne, being the Dark Knight is not a rich man's whim. "Batman Begins" shows us in great detail how Wayne became phobic about bats as a small boy, saw that phobia contribute to his parents' untimely death and, driven by despair, ended up fighting the world in a prison in Bhutan.

It's there that Wayne meets the shadowy Ducard (Liam Neeson), the emissary of Ra's al Ghul and the sinister League of Shadows, a group fanatically dedicated to the stamping out of evil. They offer to make him one of their own, and in the group's Himalayan redoubt Wayne learns more than ninja fighting techniques and methods of psychological warfare. He learns that embracing his own fear, specifically that old phobia toward bats, will be the key to his transformation.

If this scenario sounds a bit standard, it is in fact the least involving part of the film, for "Batman Begins" does not immediately kick into its highest gear. Though the early days of a hero have an intrinsic interest, especially when they are as thought out as they are here, this backstory has a tendency to feel too pulp-fiction familiar to completely enthrall.

Also a problem, and one that recurs sporadically through the film, is that not all of "Batman's" actors have equal facility with the admittedly difficult assignment of being both comic-book archetypes and real people. Bale, who seems to feel this role in his bones, handles it with aplomb, but both Neeson and Katie Holmes, who appears later as a putative romantic interest, never seem to be sure which side of the coin to favor at any given moment.

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