"Bats frighten me. It's time my enemies shared my dread."
I was not particularly excited for the release of Batman Begins. Yes, I had enjoyed Memento, and to a lesser extent Insomnia (it didn't help that I had seen the superior original version prior to catching Nolan's remake), and I've been a fan of Christian Bale's since American Psycho. But Batman and Robin left such a sour, lingering taste in my mouth that I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the new film, even if it was a reboot. But the slew of excellent reviews, coupled with strong word of mouth, got my butt in a seat. Walking out of the theater, I said to my girlfriend at the time, "If I was allowed to make a Batman origin film, that would pretty much be it." Nolan completely redefined what Batman was and could be, and I fell in love instantly. The film (along with Unforgiven) is one of the reasons I bought an HD DVD player, back when the format war was in full swing. And indeed, Begins was a potent weapon in the format's arsenal, with the Blu-ray only seeing the light of day now, just in time for the theatrical release of the film's sequel, The Dark Knight.
Batman Begins does something no Batman film has ever bothered with before: Puts the focus on Batman's origin. The film opens with Bruce Wayne as a child, falling into a well and breaking his leg, only to find himself trapped in a den of bats. We then cut forward to Wayne as an adult, here played by Christian Bale, stuck in a prison in the Far East. Wayne has travelled the world, trying to discover what makes criminals tick. However, while he may be a multi-billionaire, Wayne has lost his way. He's given a new path by a mysterious mentor named Ducard (Liam Neeson), who takes Wayne to the home of the League of Shadows, a mysterious brotherhood whose purpose is to weed out injustice, mercilessly and silently. Realizing that the ultimate end of any criminal caught by the League is death, Wayne leaves the League in ruins and returns to Gotham, his home. The training he received has not gone to waste, as Bruce Wayne, aided by his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and brilliant inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), turns himself into a symbol to fight for justice and turn the tide of corruption that has engulfed the city. His goal is to use fear on those who prey on the fearful, to become a dark avenger of the night. He becomes more than a man. He is Batman.
We all know the basic story of Batman. As a child, Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered in front of him, and he dons a cape and cowl to avenge their death, by protecting Gotham City from criminals. The fact that the tale is so familiar makes Nolan's handling of the material in Begins all the more impressive. Nolan, along with co-writer David Goyer of Blade fame, takes a good deal of time to delve into Bruce Wayne's psyche. He gives Batman something he's never had before in film: Humanity. While Bruce Wayne has appeared in the previous four Batman movies, it was mostly as a way to set up a situation where he has to make a quick exit so he can re-appear as Batman. Nolan never condescends to the character of Wayne the way the previous directors did, making him the focus of the film. Batman is there to give Bruce a purpose, a direction. It's telling that Batman doesn't appear until the film's second act, giving the creation far more weight and resonance than when he appeared on a rooftop in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman (in fact, watching any of the previous Burton or Schumacher films in the wake of Begins makes it painfully clear just how much this cinematic reinvention was needed--even Burton's verdant visual imagination wasn't capable of truly getting to the heart of the Batman legend). Every character in the film has a psychological motivation, which makes the film much more than a simple "Hero fights the villain" story.
Nolan understands that the true power of Batman is in his capability to strike fear. He hides Batman in the shadows, using quick-cut techniques to suggest his fighting prowess, instead of showing us long, drawn out fight sequences. It was a move that was highly criticized, and I still hear people complaining about it, but it does keep the audience guessing as to what the Batman really is as much as the citizens of Gotham. Nolan also smartly takes time to develop Batman's supporting cast. Michael Caine gives us a wonderful Alfred, far more three dimensional and critical of what Wayne is doing with Batman than anything we ever saw out of Michael Gough. And for the first time ever, Jim Gordon (not yet the Commisioner) is actually an active participant in Batman's war on crime. Gary Oldman is refreshingly subdued in the role, almost disappearing behind his bushy moustache and oversized glasses. But it's exactly this inner calm that makes him work as a supporter for Batman: Gordon knows his limits, and understands that Batman can go where he cannot. After so many years of living with corruption, Gordon is ready to start down the path that Batman offers.
The villains are a little more broadly drawn than the heroes, but they're no less tantalizing for it. Tom Wilkinson gives us his best gangster as Carmine Falcone, and Cillian Murphy is eerily effective as the demented Scarecrow. It's nice to see Batman face off against enemies who aren't traditional super villains (Scarecrow is one of the larger villains in Batman's rogues gallery, but he's playing second fiddle to a greater evil), because it helps people remember that Batman came about to fight mobsters and thugs, not Jokers, Penguins, and Riddlers. Those come later. In those, and so many other ways, Batman Begins breaks with the accepted conventions of comic book films. In fact, as much as people are saying that The Dark Knight is the movie to transcend the comic book genre, I think that Begins did it, too. Nolan purposefully made as much of the film as "real world" as possible. Batman doesn't have an unending array of bat gadgets to play around with. Through Lucius Fox, he does have a selection of military grade prototype weaponry that he repurposes for use as Batman. Seeing Bruce Wayne reappropriate body armor for his suit and "smart cloth" for his cape adds a layer of realism that sells the premise. Heck, we even see Wayne cutting his own batarangs, used in the same manner as ninja throwing stars, instead of the massive, radio controlled batarangs we've seen before.
There are so many fantastic elements to Batman Begins that I could talk about it for days. Christian Bale is the first actor to give convincing portrayals of both Bruce Wayne and Batman (Keaton did a serviceable job as Batman, Kilmer did an okay job as Wayne, and Clooney did neither well). He has an inner fire that makes you understand why a man would risk life and limb while dressed in a bat suit to fight crime. The use of Chicago and a reliance on practical effects also gives the film a lived-in feel. Gone are the incongrous mish-mashes of architectural styles that Burton and Schumacher hoisted on us. Gone even is the imposing facade of Gotham that was used in the animated series. Instead, we get what feels like a real city, truly under seige from the criminal element. We see the layers of society and how the corruption has infiltrated every level. We see the few good people strving to make a difference, or resigning themselves to silence if they can't. We see all this and finally we understand why we need a Batman as much as Bruce Wayne does. And with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has thankfully given us a vision of the character that does him justice.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Note: The images in this review do no reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray disc.