Batman loses a bit of altitude and velocity in this fourth installment of Warner Bros.’ hugely successful series. The villains, Arnold Schwarzenegger and especially Uma Thurman in this instance, remain the highlights here, as the rest of the gargantuan production lacks the dash and excitement that would have given the franchise a boost in its eighth year. Nonetheless, all the commercial elements are in place for B.O. that will follow in the flight path of the three previous blockbusters.
The series has remained aloft due to highly effective all-star casting of the baddies as well as refreshment and expansion of other talent in front of and behind the camera. George Clooney as Batman and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl are the new arrivals this time out, with Chris O’Donnell back for his sophomore appearance as Robin and director Joel Schumacher up to the plate for a second time as well.
Unfortunately, the operative word is bland, as the newcomers don’t add much to the formula, leaving it to their nemeses to enliven the proceedings. Narrative drive and humor are also in short supply, which creates a serious sag in the middle when the novelty of the fresh components has mostly worn off.
Initial suiting up of the black-caped duo constitutes the most self-consciously conspicuous fetishizing yet of the anatomically sculpted Batgear, this in preparation for their initial battle with Mr. Freeze (Schwarzenegger), a warrior bedecked in climate-controlled armor and equipped with an awesome frost-spewing gun that freezes everything in its sights.
Initial set piece, in which Freeze unleashes his ice-skating goons on the winged twosome, is somewhat silly since the minions spend more time playing hockey with a giant diamond coveted by Freeze than trying to accomplish their mission, which is to kill the good guys. But the follow-up is pretty spectacular, with Freeze blasting off in a private spaceship with Batman captive inside and Robin clinging outside, followed by some radical air surfing back to Gotham City.
Like nearly everyone, including the heroes, in a Batman story, Mr. Freeze is a tortured soul driven to an extreme double life due to a past tragedy. In his previous life, he was Dr. Victor Fries, a brilliant scientist who, due to an accident, must now maintain his body temperature at zero. He is also a hopeless romantic who keeps his beautiful wife (supermodel Vendela K. Thommessen), the victim of a degenerative disease, in a state of frozen suspended animation until he can devise a cure for her.
In the meantime, revenge is the word, as it is for a nerdy horticulturist (Thurman) who emerges from a near-fatal incident in the curvy form of an outrageously sexy vamp, Poison Ivy, bent on destroying the human race for its offenses to all things green. The slinky Ivy needs only to blow some of her special love dust in the face of any man in order to subdue him, and a kiss from her is literally a kiss of death.
Back at Bruce Wayne’s mansion, there are also problems, as the billionaire’s beloved butler, Alfred (Michael Gough), doesn’t appear well. But the old man is buoyed by the arrival from England of his niece Barbara (Silverstone), whose demure good-girlishness belies a secret taste for the souped-up motorcycles stashed in the Batcave.
Those bikes spur the silliest sequence in the picture, in which Barbara hangs out with a bunch of lowlifes at night prior to an utterly gratuitous motorcycle drag race that looks like something out of “The Lost Boys.” The Bruce Wayne side of the story has always posed a problem in the current series, and this installment is no exception, as the at-home chitchat consists of this group of orphans discussing the need for trust and family, and Bruce/Batman having to throw cold water on Dick/Robin, who’s hot for both Barbara and Poison Ivy.
Midsection is woefully low on conflict and incident, with Mr. Freeze temporarily in custody, Barbara lolling about and Poison Ivy failing to fatally seduce either Batface or Birdbrain, as she calls her adversaries. Things pick up when Ivy frees Freeze and, informing him that the flying rodents have pulled the plug on his wife (when she in fact has jealously done so), inspires him to join her in a partnership of Adam and Evil to freeze Gotham City and decimate the world’s human population.
Late in the game, Barbara transforms into Batgirl, to less than electrifying effect, to help her protectors fight the ultimate battle, which sees Freeze turning Bruce Wayne’s powerful telescope into a giant ice gun with which he can spray the entire city. As the victims must be thawed within minutes or be frozen forever, Batman, Robin and Batgirl shift into high gear, resulting in a protracted sequence as thunderously numbing as the climax of any other $100 million action film in recent memory.
Ongoing technological advances have made the effects, if not the production design, even more grandiose than in the previous Batman outings, although not necessarily to more edifying or thrilling effect. Batman’s abilities were never about special effects (he can’t even fly, really), and shouldn’t have to compete with things that morph in the night.
Physically, Clooney is unquestionably the most ideal Batman to date, but none of the series’ screenwriters has ever gotten a handle on how to make the character as interesting as those around him, and Clooney is unable to compensate onscreen for the lack of dimension on paper. It is difficult to think of another superhero series in which it would matter so little who plays the part, and it is indicative of the ongoing flaw in the Batman franchise that the changes in leading men have so little impact on the films’ popularity or effectiveness.
O’Donnell mainly conveys a boyish eagerness that must continually be channeled and tempered by his guardian, while Silverstone, in her first bigscreen appearance since breaking through in “Clueless,” makes a particularly disappointing impression, as she brings no special flair or energy to her potentially choice role.
That leaves it to the villains. Schwarzenegger, painted a silvery blue and heavily encased, is forced to deliver every cool/cold/chill/
frigid/frozen pun in the book, but the Freeze character is so unusual and imposing that he easily holds the interest. But best of all is Thurman, imaginatively coifed in red tresses and green body stocking, a man trap who taunts her intended victims like a leafy Mae West and is assisted in moments of physical need by a hulking, obedient manservant, Bane (Jeep Swenson). Her performance has comic wit conspicuously lacking elsewhere in the picture.
The production is as physically huge, elaborate and expensive as the audience expects it to be. Concluding tag makes it clear that all three Bat heroes can be anticipated in the next installment.