It’s more Bruce Wayne than caped crusader in “Batman Begins,” a telling of the legendary character’s formative experiences that gives precedence to psychology over super-heroics. While developing an elaborate backstory for the 66-year-old comic book figure, director Christopher Nolan delivers a very serious would-be franchise launcher that, perhaps inadvertently, bears closer thematic comparison to “Kill Bill” and aspects of “Star Wars” than to what audiences primed on the Burton/Schumacher films or the TV series might expect. Ambitious, well made but not exactly rousing, lavishly produced Warner Bros. release will ride heavy promotion and want-see to big openings worldwide, but is too dark and talky to appeal to kids and won’t inspire much repeat viewing, which casts sought-after blockbuster B.O. in some doubt.
After so much to-and-fro about how to revive the Dark Knight (the studio’s last entry in its four-picture set, the lamentable “Batman and Robin,” appeared just eight years ago), it was a fairly gutsy bet on Warner’s part to entrust the job to Nolan, a crafty young director whose “Memento” and “Insomnia” evinced storytelling smarts, visual flair and good instincts with actors.
But these matters aren’t at issue. Rather, it’s the story that’s been chosen to be told, and the degree of gravity invested in it. From the opening scene, Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer ( the “Blade” series) foreground the demons that haunt and drive Bruce Wayne, and it’s a full hour before “the Bat-Man” (as he was originally called) shows up. Psychological depth is all well and good, but it’s an open question how much time you want to spend on it when the subject is a cartoon character.
The filmmakers seem intent upon making Bruce/Batman and his actions as plausible (one resists saying realistic) as possible, emphasizing that he’s a distinctly human hero with no super powers. All the same, guys, he was still born in a comic book, and it’s doubtful Batman would have lived very long had the original DC Comics been as drained of sheer childlike fun as this film is. There is talent and cleverness here, but not much excitement.
Jumping around in time during the opening stretch, pic details how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale as an adult, Gus Lewis as a kid), the only child of a wealthy philanthropic industrialist, is traumatized at an early age upon accidentally falling into an empty well that’s home to an enormous number of bats; feels guilt over the murder of his parents at the hands of a derelict robber; leaves his palatial home upon reaching maturity to investigate criminality in the darker corners of Asia, and is rescued from a dreadful prison (in what the press notes indicate is Bhutan) by a mysterious fellow named Ducard (Liam Neeson). A tough taskmaster, Ducard teaches his specially selected pupil about achieving justice and becoming a legend.
Although shot in Iceland amidst spectacular terrain that recalls the Alaskan setting of “Insomnia,” this long instructional section is filled with philosophical gobbledygook about developing strength by facing your deepest fears, methods of focusing anger and vengefulness, and how “you must journey inwards.”
Some of this is delivered while Ducard and Bruce face off with large swords on a frozen lake, and one must be forgiven for imagining that what’s onscreen are outtakes from “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” with Neeson’s Jedi knight teaching Obi-Wan Kenobi dueling techniques.
It doesn’t stop there, however, as “The Last Samurai” is invoked with the entrance of Ken Watanabe as the charismatic leader of a vigilante ninja org called the League of Shadows.
In the end, Bruce proves himself a worthy student, returning home to take on the rampant corruption in Gotham (or is it Sin City?). Half the city is in the pocket of gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Others up to no good are Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a young psychiatrist who leads a double life as the sinister Scarecrow, and Earle (Rutger Hauer), who has taken charge of the Wayne family industries.
Although none of these figures qualifies as a great villain, Bruce begins developing his alter ego with help from ever-loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and company high-tech expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Fox functions much like “Q” in the Bond films by turning Bruce on to useful gizmos, including a very powerful armored vehicle (“Does it come in black?” Bruce inquires, in one of the better lines).
Batman begins modestly by disrupting a drug shipment and handing Falcone to the police, one of whose few honest officers is Detective Sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Also on the good team is Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes), a very young-looking assistant district attorney who is disappointed that Bruce appears to be a dissolute playboy with no ideals.
Nolan and Goyer dwell on the idea of the masks one chooses to put on for the world to see, as well as the notion of character being defined by deed not word; concepts are entirely appropriate to Batman, but are hardly new or worth belaboring. Then there’s the late-on surprise of who the main bad guy turns out to be, which is all right but further splinters the villainy.
All along, pic emphasizes the real-worldliness of Bruce. This is even a Batman movie in which the Batcave is an actual bat cave. But when it comes to Batman’s attacks on adversaries, the film fudges it, throwing a flurry of images on the screen with quick editing that obscures how the winged one manages to so easily drop in on his enemies.
What this incarnation of Batman lacks is theatricality, a sense of showmanship to put over the new approach. Although little jokes and quips are gradually introduced, only slowly does Nolan dare to begin having any fun with the material, and even then far too cautiously. It’s not that the film is prosaic, but it is terribly sober, afraid to make grand gestures and build to major payoffs. It’s as if, out of a desire to appear smart and not to pander to the large public destined to see the picture, Nolan restrained himself from providing moments that might prove too audience pleasing.
As opposed to the highly designed Gotham City of the Tim Burton pictures, this one features cityscapes that recognizably belong to the real Chicago, with a fictional monorail system added in. Nor is there anything fetishistic about the Batman costume, which is plain and functional.
With an ideal physique and bearing for the role, Bale makes for a committed, driven, urbane and intelligent do-gooder; only oddity is the somewhat electronic quality of his voice as Batman. Neeson is a fearsome mentor, and Murphy makes a strong impression as the corrupt doctor, although the Scarecrow persona is woefully undeveloped. Oldman is effectively cast against type as the most decent man in Gotham, Holmes is OK, and Caine dryly does all he can in the butler role that could have benefited from some posthumous additional dialogue by Preston Sturges.
Unusual soundtrack collaboration by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard results in a moodily churning score that adds an extra sense of momentum to the tale. Tag promises a sequel in which the Joker is specifically indicated as the chief villain.