For the overwhelming majority of its running time, this reinvention of the moribund Batman franchise aims squarely at grown-ups. Catching up with a comic book industry that has found ways to tell mature stories in a genre long-assumed to be for youngsters, director Christopher Nolan (Memento) digs into fertile psychological ground. The result is a something you don’t expect from summer filmmaking: a frequently riveting character drama that happens to be about a masked crime-fighter.
True to the mythology, Batman Begins starts with the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s billionaire father and mother by mugger Joe Chill. Years later, a still-haunted college-age Bruce (Christian Bale) begins a world-wandering search to understand criminality, his journeys eventually taking him to the Himalayan retreat of the vigilante cabal League of Shadows led by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). There, Bruce trains in a variety of fighting techniques under the enigmatic Ducard (Liam Neeson) before breaking free of the League’s demand that he become a judge and executioner. Bruce has other ideas in mind, including returning to his native Gotham to fight criminals in a guise that will strike fear into their hearts.
It is, however, well over an hour into Batman Begins before that famous pointy-eared cowl makes its first appearance. Nolan wades through the nuts and bolts of Bruce assembling his Batman arsenal with the assistance of a Wayne Enterprises military applications expert (Morgan Freeman) and his trusted manservant Alfred (Michael Caine).
While some viewers might get itchy waiting for Batman to start mixing it up with villains like Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), Nolan’s deliberate pace is the genius of Batman Begins. The fascination of the character has always been the “why” of an independently wealthy heir who devotes his life to defending Gotham, and the film never skimps on what a physically and mentally grueling process it is for Bruce Wayne to become Batman. Bale handles the role with both charm and intensity, but it’s Nolan’s determination to focus as much on internal battles as external ones that give Bale’s performance the meat it needs to chew on.
And once the external battles do begin, Nolan still takes chances. This is not a Batman who bursts into rooms and stands with arms akimbo, challenging goons to fisticuffs—he’s a trained assassin who uses surprise and dizzying attacks to terrify adversaries. That means Nolan’s fight sequences often consist of nothing more than a blur of Bat-suit followed by chaotic crunches, rather than crisply choreographed twirls and kicks.
It’s evident even through his casting of veteran talent—Neeson, Freeman, Caine, Tom Wilkinson as a smug mob boss, and Gary Oldman as good-cop-in-a-bad-city Jim Gordon—that Nolan is more interested in getting his story right than about getting it cool. Sure, he goes for a decayed Blade Runner vibe in the look of Gotham that feels a bit recycled, and he doesn’t seem particularly invested in the perfunctory Katie Holmes romantic sub-plot. Yet for nearly two and a half hours, Nolan builds a movie world in which the “man” part of Batman matters more than the “bat” part.
BATMAN BEGINS ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Liam Neeson.
(PG-13, 141 mins.) At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Northridge Cinemas, Century Park Seven.