With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
Batman Begins (2005)
Tim Burton brought Batman to the cinema in 1989 and followed up with Batman Returns in 1992. Both films were very good, the latter in particular, portraying Gotham as a dark, gothic city with Batman facing memorable villains in the Joker, Penguin and Catwoman. Batman Forever (1995) saw standards dip somewhat and with Batman and Robin (1997) they plunged into the pit of decadence and the series rightly dissipated. Christopher Nolan looked to resurrect Batman with the release of Batman Begins but rather than a sequel to the four previous films this would be a complete overhaul but was it worth the effort?
As the title suggests this film is about how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) became Batman in the first place. It begins when Bruce is a boy and after falling into a cave he encounters bats which become a lifelong fear. The next thing we know Bruce is a prisoner in Bhutan but is liberated by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who is part of the League of Shadows that work for Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Bruce begins training in the art of sword fighting, martial arts and learning to face his fears and past, one that includes the murder of his parents. Once trained Bruce faces an initiation whereby he must execute a criminal before leading the League of Shadows to destroy Gotham City. Bruce refuses and instead burns down the mountain headquarters of the League of Shadows before killing Ra’s al Ghul but rescuing an unconscious Ducard from the inferno. Bruce returns to Gotham City where crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) has no one to oppose him. Over time Bruce’s desire to fight crime leads him down the road that will see him become Batman.
Batman Begins opens quickly and jumps around a lot in the opening stages. We immediately see Bruce in prison with flashbacks of his first contact with bats and the murder of his parents all being shared in the early part. From these origins we also learn Bruce sought to kill Joe Chill (Richard Brake), the man that murdered his parents but assassins of Falcone rob him of his opportunity. Bruce loses the affection of his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and also leaves behind his guardian Alfred (Michael Caine) to travel the world and find a new path in life. The training with the League of Shadows follows a standard storyline with Bruce inexperienced and though he learns combat he has to conquer his fears and come to terms with his turbulent past. It’s a fascinating take on the origins of Batman where previously we had the successful businessman that fought crime as Batman. Bruce has inherited his father’s business in this version where he has to contend with the calculating William Earle (Rutger Hauer) who becomes head of the company when Bruce has been declared dead after a long absence. Bruce isn’t interested all that much in the company save for the science division where Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) works and has access to some interesting equipment, pieces of which make up the Batsuit as well as the Batmobile.
The good thing about Batman Begins is that we get to see the learning curve of Bruce in becoming Batman. He is fighting crime on the streets before wearing the suit and from these experiences he makes the necessary improvements to assist his movements throughout the city, particularly across the rooftops. Nolan has a lot of background material to get into shape here including Sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) who is one of the few honest cops in Gotham City and of course will later become Commissioner Gordon that works closely with Batman and is always quick to use the Bat Signal to summon the superhero for help, again the signal is another element which is born during the film. A brave step from Nolan is his use of villains. The best known comic book baddies we look forward to seeing are not featured here. Crime boss Falcone is a mainstay while the slick-haired Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) is the closest we get to a Joker with his alter ego being the Scarecrow, a mask he wears to protect himself when gassing people with hallucinogenic chemicals that instil madness and fear.
Batman Begins spends some time setting the scene but it never becomes a dull experience as Nolan expertly introduces the characters, many we’re familiar with already. Gotham City is dark but the colourful exterior during the day somewhat taints that gothic image that Burton used to such great effect in Batman and Batman Returns. A stellar cast is on show here with Katie Holmes being one of the few weak links. Michael Caine makes for a commendable and highly amusing Alfred, while Oldman, Freeman, Hauer, Wilkinson and Murphy all provide great support. Christian Bale is a good but by no means outstanding Batman. As Bruce Wayne he’s fine but once in the Batsuit his voice becomes very gruff as if he has a bucketful of grit lodged at the back of his throat. It amused me to hear his voice rather than think that sounds good. Though not as good as Batman Returns, this is still a great effort and enough evidence that Nolan has plucked the ailing Batman series from the depths of obsolescence and given it new life.
Batman Begins is an entertaining and insightful backdrop to the Batman story, focussing more on the character of Bruce Wayne. His origins and the path he traverses to becoming the caped crusader maintain the interest throughout while a mouth-watering cast of Hollywood talent all contribute to what is a welcome return to form for a series that I feared would never grace the cinemas again.
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