When Batman last showed up on the silver screen, the caped crusader had somehow changed from smug Val Kilmer to Dr. Douglas Ross (a.k.a. George Clooney), the future governor of California was giving everyone a cold reception as Mr. Freeze, the heroes had somewhat anatomically correct chest armor, and director Joel Schumacher had turned the once venerable series into a cartoon of its former self.
Much like Warner Bros. other once decent comic book turned movie franchise, "Superman," this one seemed ready to be shelved for good after that 1997 release. With nearly a decade having passed and most everyone associated with the former films off doing other things, however, the studio decided the time was right to start again.
Yet, with the series, its heroes, villains and storylines seeming tapped out, where could they go with a new effort? Why, back to the beginning of course which has resulted in "Batman Begins," an above average effort that's certainly far better than its recent predecessors, but not quite up there with the "Spider-Man" films in terms of sheer fun, spectacle and overall quality.
As the title would suggest, the film is about the character, his origins and what makes him tick. It's that last part that really makes this film stand apart from the earlier efforts. I didn't check my watch to note the actual time, but I'd guess it's probably halfway through the 140-some minute length before we actually see "American Psycho" himself, Christian Bale, in the now familiar if updated batsuit.
And while we've seen the general back-story about the character's catalytic moment before -- that being witnessing a robber gunning down his parents - the film goes far more in-depth in the exploration of the Bruce Wayne/Batman psyche. Although that might sound a little heady or even boring for those used to the previous installments, it actually manages to work despite a number of problems that the overall film faces.
Despite the dramatic character exploration angle, the material here is a step-down for writer/director Christopher Nolan who previously impressed viewers and critics alike with "Memento" and "Insomnia." While one can see strains of the magic he worked so well in those pictures here, this one feels conflicted by its own inner turmoil of being a psychological piece vs. a big-budget, action-filled, summer blockbuster.
That very fact may symbolically parallel the main character's own such turmoil (billionaire playboy or caped crime-fighter), but it almost feels as if Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer (the "Blade" films) were instructed to make sure the drama didn't overshadow the film's action scenes.
The only problem is that the action feels second-rate (especially in the big, climatic finale), not only because the villains are also just that (and a hero and the film he's in are only as good as the bad guys), but also because Nolan has resorted to quick cuts and other such editing in those scenes. Such footage is presumably supposed to make such material even that much more exciting and "intimate," but much of it somewhat reeks of someone who's not sure how to handle such moments on a larger scare (which is also often the case with music video directors helming martial arts films).
For all of the problems that may have surrounded past villains played by the likes of Schwarzenegger, DeVito, Carrey and more, at least they were more interesting than Tom "The Full Monty" Wilkinson ("In the Bedroom") as an otherwise standard-issue crime boss and Cillian Murphy ("Cold Mountain," "28 Days Later") as "The Scarecrow" whose burlap hood turns monstrous looking when his victims have inhaled some paranoia-inducing drug dust. Both are suitable for the plot needs and Wilkinson is solid in the role, but the characters are otherwise about as boring as they come.
Then there's the fact that we've seen so many of the film's other elements done before elsewhere. The master-student training scenes featuring Bale and Liam Neeson ("Kingdom of Heaven," "Kinsey") will seem like those from "The Matrix" (or any number of other such films); the gadget scenes featuring Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby," "Bruce Almighty") as an older techno-geek are far too reminiscent of Q in the Bond films; and there's the obligatory, hinted at romantic subplot between Bale and Katie Holmes ("First Daughter," "Piece of April").
The latter's character seems like an afterthought -- perhaps another studio directive to try to tap into the same thing that helped make the "Spider-Man" films so successful. Unfortunately, thanks to the script shortchanging that, Holmes seeming too young to be the assistant D.A., and maybe due to her being involved with another certain Hollywood star, such scenes lack the same sort of magic and spark that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst brought to those Spidey films.
Like Michael Keaton before him, Bale ("Reign of Fire," "Empire of the Sun") seems like a questionable choice for the role, particularly regarding the action scenes where he seems too slight for the part. Yet, like his predecessor, he mostly manages to pull it off (although I still prefer Mr. Mom in the part). It's fun seeing Michael Caine ("Bewitched," "Secondhand Lions") playing Alfred the butler, but aside from a few funny lines, his character also feels a bit too shortchanged (even for a supporting role). And Ken Watanabe isn't afforded the time or character to impress as much as he did in "The Last Samurai."
Arguably the best performance comes from Gary Oldman ("The Contender," "Lost in Space") who again disappears into his character so well that I wasn't entirely sure it was really him at first. As the cop who's after and investigating Batman, his is also a purposefully limited role, but Oldman manages to bring the character to life and then some.
After all of that criticism, one would think this could be a negative review. Yet, my initial reaction -- while watching the film play out and then immediately afterwards -- was quite positive as the pic managed to overcome its difficulties and work for me both in specific scenes as well as an overall whole.
I can't pinpoint exactly what caused that reaction -- a curiously good mood for this jaded critic, a terrific visual look for the film (the production design, et al., is top-notch) or Nolan and company simply managing to hit the notes just right enough -- but it happened, at least in the moment. I can't say if the same would occur again with a second viewing, but the film -- at least one time through -- is a decent enough combination of psychological drama and comic-book style action to get a passing grade.