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"Does it come in black"
A film review of BATMAN BEGINS by Camus
 
"A guy dresses up like a bat clearly has issues..."
Bruce Wayne nodding towards his own insanity

 

n the trailer, when Christian Bale smiles his Patrick (American Psycho) Bateman smile and asks if the 'Tumbler', the all terrain, armoured, chunky four by four 'comes in black', you just knew months ago that the dominant emotion, colour and all round DNA of Christopher Nolan's reinvention of the dead franchise was going to be a russet shade of pale mauve. OK, OK. Black. The darkest and deepest black. And it is. Deliciously so. It's also an adult blockbuster, scarier than your average Batman, but it also means it does not treat the awaiting masses (that's us by the way) like idiots. I can't tell you how refreshing that is. Actually I can and will. I can feel that iced water coursing down my throat.

Batman Begins gives me faith in the Hollywood Big Mac Movie. We're almost at summer's peak and so far two of the offerings have been very good. If Spielberg drops the ball on War of the Worlds, it will be a crushing shame. I do find it somewhat amusing that the latest trailer of the Cruise version (where you see a metallic tentacle or two) features the now sublimely ubiquitous music cue 'Gothic Power'. You all know the piece, the one with choral chants and a tremendously rising climax. It was extraordinarily effective at getting the blood pumping and gave Peter Jackson's Fellowship such a thumpingly great trailer. But if you had to judge movies by their trailers, Spielberg's latest is up there. I am urging it to be good. Come back to us, Steven...

Christopher Nolan has already delivered and dared to go back to Bruce Wayne's origins big time. This is not Adam West (Mr. Camp TV Batman), nor is it Frank Miller's re-invention (the Dark Knight). I mean Superman was a character in those tales. That's pushing reality a little far, like a few light years towards what once was Krypton. Keaton's turn for Tim Burton was eminently satisfying and I guess we don't really count Val Kilmer or poor old bat suit be-nippled George Clooney. No. Christian Bale, as much as the solid and very nicely judged script could facilitate him, has made Batman real. Now let's not go mad. It's still a man, a physically superior, well trained man who wears a cape (they even rationalise the utility of the cape), a mask (and at his full introduction, let's add some rouge lipstick). He goes out into the wee small hours to hurt bad people. After all, that's what Batmen are for. To reach that level of reality in a Batman movie is quite a feat but Bale has proved himself, child and adult actor as a man utterly devoted to his characters. How he went from the brittle boned and emaciated Machinist to his former pumped up Reign Of Fire muscleman is a De Niro-like achievement that just screams total commitment.

He is supported by one of the most quietly impressive casts that have graced a blockbuster in many years. Butler, Alfred Pennyworth, is brought to endearing life by Michael Caine and soon to be Lieutenant Gordon (aka Commissioner Gordon) is played with pity for the downtrodden by an actor more used to roles in which he does the down treading. Gary Oldman makes a perfect unmasked foil for Batman and has the air of a man knowing what it is to be good in an evil world but completely unable to pass on the secret. Rutger Hauer is in the mix as the venal CEO of Wayne Enterprises and tucked away in the weapons R & R is Morgan Freeman, an actor that would have a great deal of trouble playing a man you could not trust. Not that I wouldn't like to see him try… The belle du jour, Katie Holmes, plays Rachel, a crusading untouchable attorney. She's become more famous for being the unfortunate object of the afore mentioned Mr. Cruise's attentions these days. I say unfortunate. Did you see that Oprah clip?) She is, however perfectly fine as Bruce's ex-loved one.

Cillian Murphy is suitably creepy as the Scarecrow, the secondary villain with a nice line in hallucinogenic weapons. And again with the mentoring, Mr. Neeson. Liam N. seems to have found a niche, playing Irish bodhisattvas. He is ridiculously convincing as a man on a mission and is one of the principal reasons that Batman becomes such a real character. Christian Bale joins Ewan McGregor and Orlando Bloom in the 'characters trained by the big man' club. A surprise (to me at least) was seeing Tom Wilkinson playing a mobster chief, Falcone. Better known for his turn in The Full Monty, Wilkinson is eerily convincing as a powerful underworld godfather. The veracity of his American accent is never in any doubt. The fact that his splayed body on a searchlight initiates the bat signal is a wonderful logical nod to serendipity.

An all important aspect of the Batman mythology on film has always been the music. Hans Zimmer has taken care of the brooding darkness with a percussive theme that fits the movie like a bat-glove and the composer in pole position to become the next Jerry Goldsmith, James Newton Howard, seems to have landed the emotional beats. According to ign.com, the composers, both good friends, have been promising each other that they would collaborate but schedules didn't allow that luxury. Batman Begins did. Zimmer insists that each cue had both composer's inputs but the strings on the more lyrical cues have got to be Newton Howard's (but then I'm just a listener, I wasn't there). Whatever the truth, the score works grandly.

The plot hinges on technology that can vaporise water releasing the Scarecrow's water-poisoned hallucinogenic drug into the atmosphere rendering the citizens of Gotham city fearful and homicidal. All credit to writer David S. Goyer for writing a dark but convincing tale. Batman never performs super-human feats (well, he does in the sense that you and I would probably not manage them) and the narrative is never derailed by stupidity and blockbuster friendly pyrotechnics. If something explodes in Batman Begins, there's a damn good reason.

If I had to carp (the essence of criticism after all), Batman's fight scenes are totally reliant on staccato editing and the need for faster action has blurred the line so much so that there were shots in the movie that I couldn't read. Maybe that's just me but as I edit for a living these days, perhaps it's a point well made. The car chase (on several rooftops) was taking things a little too far but someone had to erase the memory of the vertical building climbing batmobile of Batman Forever. How do you stay real in the context of hyper-unreality? Well, Nolan has pulled it off. There's enough here for the casual viewer to be immersed and the rabid bat fan to salivate over.

I have to admit that my favourite Batman moment was one of a very different ilk. While I loved Burton's Batman and found a great deal to admire in Nolan's, Batman's finest moment has to belong to Adam West. With all due respect to the darker, more adult figure who will now, no doubt, be summarily sequelised into the ground, it's the camp 1966 TV Batman's only foray into movies that gets my single scene of greatness award. Bear with me. In the Bat copter (remember when everything was prefaced by the word 'bat'?), Batman is being rescued from the ocean. As he is lifted clear of the surface, an extraordinarily fake rubber shark is seen attached to his leg. Nine years before Jaws, the film makers could hardly be accused of tirelessly ripping off Spielberg's masterpiece. Not only is this moment funny as a piece of intentional spoofery but what follows simply defies belief. Robin hands Batman a can of Bat-shark repellent spray and the offending fish, sprayed in the nose, dutifully obliges by falling from Batman's thigh leaving no wound. I remember this scene like I saw it yesterday and how many movies leave that indelible an impression?

Holy 'fill in the blank'. Batman is back, and he is most welcome.

Batman Begins

USA 2005
141 mins
director
Christopher Nolan
producers
Larry J. Franco
Charles Roven
Emma Thomas
screenplay
Christopher Nolan
David S. Goyer
cinematography
Wally Pfister
editor
Lee Smith
music
James Newton Howard
Hans Zimmer
production design
Nathan Crowley
starring
Christian Bale
Michael Caine
Liam Neeson
Katie Holmes
Gary Oldman
Cillian Murphy
Tom Wilkinson
Rutger Hauer
Ken Watanabe
review posted
18 June 2005