Pre-sold to skeptical fans and non-fans alike as a more “serious” take on a vigilante who dresses up as a bat, Batman Begins — presumably the start of a trilogy in which Batman Continues and Batman Concludes will follow — kicks off promisingly enough. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the billionaire orphan whose parents were gunned down by a mugger, has gotten himself tossed into a squalid Chinese jail, where he takes his rage out on his fellow prisoners. A mysterious figure named Ducard (Liam Neeson, who seems to have resigned himself to playing mentors for the rest of his career) springs Bruce from prison and indoctrinates him into a secret order known as the League of Shadows. It’s here that Bruce learns not only combat but the quality of mercy: Killing criminals, he reasons, makes us no better than them. So Bruce returns to the vice-ridden streets of Gotham, taking a bat — bats frightened him as a boy — as his power animal. He becomes Batman, scourge of the criminal element.
Some of this may sound familiar (the murdered parents), some not (everything else). Batman Begins strains mightily, at least for its first two-thirds, to be a Batman movie for people who don’t like Batman movies. (Considering the awfulness of the previous two, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, it’s fair to say Batman lost a lot of the cred he built up in Tim Burton’s two Bat-entries and in Frank Miller’s groundbreaking comics.) Director Christopher Nolan, who wrote the script with Blade scripter David S. Goyer, lays a halfway plausible framework for Batman’s expertise, his mission, and even his gadgets: Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a sort of Q to Bruce’s James Bond, supplies him with body armor, grappling hooks, and a bitchin’ new Batmobile. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” asked Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Burton’s 1989 Batman; well, now we know.
The movie takes such time and care to set up Bruce/Batman that it’s a bit of a bummer when it launches into summer-movie overdrive. We’re given two villains — mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and shady psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) — who turn out to be mere pawns in an overall scheme that makes very little sense. Also, the murder of Bruce’s parents is tied into said scheme, a large mistake: The whole point of Bruce’s trauma is that his parents were gunned down randomly, because they were in the wrong alley at the wrong time, and Batman is born out of the need to protect others from becoming random statistics. I grow weary of movies that feel compelled to tie everything together in a neat little bow (even Burton’s 1989 film did it, with the Joker turning out to be the one who killed Bruce’s parents, but at least there it was used as part of the film’s Joker-created-Batman, Batman-created-Joker symmetry).
Along about the second hour, Batman Begins abandons whatever grim realism it has constructed, collapsing into scenes of chaos in which Batman is more like damage control than like the world’s greatest detective he’s supposed to be. Gary Oldman, as clean cop James Gordon, is underused; so is Katie Holmes as Bruce’s love interest, but I didn’t mind that, since Holmes hasn’t progressed much as an actress beyond Dawson’s Creek.
Nolan, whose thrillers Memento and Insomnia were justifiably acclaimed, seems at sea here. Unlike Burton, who brought a Gothic-carnival sensibility to his Batman films, and even Joel Schumacher, whose neon-campy reworking of Batman was ludicrous but at least his own, Nolan brings no particular vision to Batman Begins. The style is best described as portentous nonstyle: glum, drab, bland. And Nolan sure isn’t an action director. The first scenes of Batman on the prowl go by in a blur, which makes sense because we’re experiencing him the way his terrified, disoriented criminal victims do. But later on, when there’s no longer any reason for it, the fight scenes are still shot far too close in and edited so sloppily we have no idea what’s happening.
The casting of Christian Bale, so memorably and hilariously batshit in American Psycho, as perhaps the most psychologically dodgy comic-book hero in history promises more than you get. Bale’s best moments here, when Bruce playacts as a drunken playboy to throw off suspicion, recall his work as Patrick Bateman. But elsewhere we need to feel that Bruce is driven and a little crazy, and we don’t. This Bruce seems like more of a put-out frat boy than an obsessed loner trying to impose sense on a senseless city. And in the Bat-suit, he’s pretty much interchangeable with everyone else who’s worn it, with the addition of a meant-to-be-spooky Bat-voice.
Both this film and the 1989 film have the caped crusader deliver the same pivotal line. Michael Keaton said “I’m Batman,” but managed to invest it with a trace of self-mocking wit, enjoying striking fear in his prey: “Yeah, I’m Batman, that’s me,” he seemed to be saying; “pretty cool, huh?” Bale grunts “I’m Batman!” and punctuates it with a head-butt. As soon as I saw that, I knew that this might be the Batman movie Roger Ebert was waiting for (as he wrote), but it’s not the one I was waiting for.