Sunday, 2 September 2012

Film Review | Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins is arguably the most important reboot of a franchise made so far. Only Casino Royale, 2006's restart of the Bond series, contests it for that title. But in hindsight, with twenty Bond films in the can, 007 was merely hitting a stale patch, something which had happened before and the secret agent had managed to come through. Bat-fans will be well aware that Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego were firmly in the doldrums at the turn of the 21st Century thanks to Joel Schumacher's so-bad-it's-painful 1997 effort Batman And Robin. Batman was seen by many as an untouchable, irreparable commodity. Neither was Christopher Nolan likely to be at the top of anyone's list in 2005 to helm the reinvigoration of the character; after his breakout feature Memento, Nolan's most recent work had been 2002's Insomnia, a skillful remake of a 1997 Norwegian psychological thriller with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. The risk factor seemed through the roof to many; they may have been right, but the risk was well worth it, and the payoff was phenomenal.

Batman Begins takes us right back to the hero's roots. Witnessing the murder of his parents at the hands of a petty criminal, a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) exiles himself from Gotham City and travels the world, cutting himself off from all who know and care for him including butler to his parents Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). After being rescued from a prison in the Himalayas by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Wayne is trained as a member of the League Of Shadows, a mysterious organisation utilising ninjitsu and advanced martial arts techniques. It is this training which Wayne uses to develop his vigilante persona, Batman, upon his return to Gotham, a city now swathed in fear and corruption.

Batman Begins is successful in pretty much everything it attempts. Nolan's script, written with brother Jonathan, brings depth to the story of Batman, something which hasn't really been seen before in the franchise, even in Tim Burton's acclaimed efforts in the late '80s and early '90s. In fact, this isn't really the story of Batman at all; this is Bruce Wayne's story told with notes that are epic and extravagant as well as intimate and personal and in which Batman is one aspect of the character. Wayne's masked alter-ego isn't actually seen until around halfway through the film, and it makes his entrance all the more thrilling.

Nolan's choices for the film's antagonists are spot on, shying away from the caped crusader's most notorious and flamboyant enemies in favour of a rogues' gallery more grounded in reality. Carmine Falcone, portrayed by an excellent Tom Wilkinson, is a superb choice as the first genuine criminal threat to Gotham seen in the film bringing a largely real world, mafioso flavour to proceedings. Cillian Murphy as slimy, corrupt criminal psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane is also fantastic, marrying the more flamboyant comic-book style of the character perfectly with Nolan's more realistic take on the franchise. And, without revealing too much about the plot's twists and turns, Neeson's character provides a fantastic counterpoint to both Bruce Wayne and Batman, underpinned by the actor's strong performance.

With so many bad guys in attendance, it would be easy for a lesser film to fall into the trap of losing focus and denying any of them enough development or screen time; Nolan however interlinks the antagonists brilliantly, fitting them together in such a way that each feels genuine and worthwhile on their own, but also allows the creation of a criminal hierarchy within Gotham that adds depth to the city not seen on screen before.

Things are just as impressive on the side of good. Bale is excellent as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, bringing a complex cocktail of emotions and facade to the former, and palpable power and ingenuity to the latter, finding the right balance of drama and humour in both personas. The supporting good guys are also strong, with Caine and Morgan Freeman reliably excellent and Holmes doing well as Wayne's estranged love interest. The strongest support however, and arguably the performance of the film, comes from Gary Oldman as police officer Jim Gordon, rising through the ranks to lieutenant as the film progresses. Understated, sympathetic, and charged with an incredibly strong sense of right and wrong, Oldman's Gordon is perfect, and will surely go down as one of the actor's most memorable performances.

The ensemble cast tied together with Nolan's script, balancing heroic gravitas with comedic quips, gripping action set pieces with intimate character interaction, makes Batman Begins pretty hard to fault. It is often the sequel, The Dark Knight, which receives greater critical acclaim than this film, unfairly overshadowing one of the most important action blockbusters and comic book adaptations of all time. Without Batman Begins, The Dark Knight would not exist. More importantly, the action landscape now would look quite different, and Batman as a franchise might still be mouldering in a dank corner of Hollywood. In Batman Begins, Nolan not only saved an untouchable commodity, but brought new life into it in a way that many never thought possible.


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