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Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Fearing the worst, Batman keeps it safe

Batman Begins

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running time: 140 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 18
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"People need dramatic examples to shake them out of their apathy," declares Bruce Wayne -- the alter-ego of the Caped Crusader -- in "Batman Begins," a prequel of sorts for this resurrected superhero franchise.

News photo
Christian Bale gets to grip with an opponent in "Batman Begins." (C)2005 WARNER BROS. ENT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The line is quite pertinent to movies these days. Benumbed by movie violence? Try "Irreversible." Bored by sameo-sameo three-act narratives? Try "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Many films are pushing the limits of their medium in an attempt to break through to jaded viewers. "Batman Begins," however, is not one of them.

Superhero movies are a dime a dozen these days (not the best simile, given their cost) and "Batman Begins" shows absolutely nothing to distinguish itself from the pack.

The film's message, hammered home from beginning to end, is that one has to conquer one's fears -- as a young Bruce Wayne does with his mortal fear of bats. And yet "Batman Begins" is a film that shows timidity at every turn, a fear of straying in any way whatsoever from the cliches and predictability of the genre.

Seeking to resurrect the franchise after the underperforming "Batman Forever" -- a title that seemed more like a threat -- the studio brought in a new star to don the bat suit (this time sans nipples), Christian Bale, and a hot new talent to direct, Christopher Nolan. Fans of the "Batman" series to date will be pleased, as Nolan brings a grittier, no-nonsense approach to the material, but fans of the director's previous works, such as "Memento" and "Following," will be bitterly disappointed. While "Memento" was remarkably effective in instilling in the viewer a sense of memory loss, with "Batman Begins," Nolan only succeeds in creating a feeling of deja vu.

Like Ang Lee and Sam Raimi before him, Nolan is a talented, creative, risk-taking filmmaker who has loaned his name and cred to the most bland, bloated Hollywood product imaginable. The process here is similar to the one (skewered in the forthcoming "I Heart Huckabees") in which the worst corporate polluters make some sort of token contribution to environmentalism, thus buying an undeserved patina of respectability.

No doubt, the presence of Nolan will undoubtedly generate reviews that claim to discover hidden depths here, but really, the difference between this and the much-ridiculed "Daredevil" is about as great as that of Coke and Pepsi. One Net critic, a self-avowed comics fan, described the film as "more of an intellectual, psychological character study." More so than "Catwoman," I suppose, but unless you think Yoda was the great philosophical genius of the 20th century, you might want to rent a Polanski or Bergman flick for a better frame of reference.

"Batman Begins" starts off confusingly, with Bruce Wayne scrapping with inmates in a Chinese prison camp. Why he's there is not clear. (Someone remind me: Did he join the Falun Gong in episode 4?) He's sprung by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a representative of the League of Shadows, a ninja-like organization dedicated to fighting evil and led by the mysterious Ra's-al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe, in a bit part). High in the Himalayas, Wayne trains with the League to gain superhuman crime-fighting powers. Neeson, in the Yoda role, dispenses "deep" wisdom like "embrace your worst fear, become one with the darkness!" while Bale looks like he's recalling reviews of "American Psycho."

Wayne has a falling-out with the League over their intention to take out his hometown, Gotham City, which they see as hopelessly corrupt (shades of al-Qaeda?). A battle ensues, with the whole League hide-out getting blown to hell, but Wayne spares the life of Ducard, making us wonder if this is the same cold-hearted Batman who fried the Joker in the first film.

Nolan uses his trademark narrative scramble somewhat, flashing us back intermittently to Bruce Wayne's childhood, where he falls in a well and develops a fear of bats; he later witnesses his parents gunned-down in a robbery, and blames his own weakness for their deaths. After his sabbatical in the Himalayas, he returns to his family mansion and inheritance, where he creates an image of himself as an, um, "millionaire playboy," covering up his nocturnal activities as the masked vigilante, Batman.

There's a love interest popping up in the form of Katie Holmes, as Bruce's childhood friend Rachel Dawes, who goes on to become a crusading public prosecutor. As is usual in this kind of film, however, despite several extended orgies of wanton destruction, "Batman Begins" barely finds the time for a brief kiss between the two. Like Mary Jane in "Spiderman," she primarily serves as the damsel-in-distress -- or a sop to pull female viewers into a film that is 99 percent obsessed with the teen fan-boy demographic.

Gary Oldman, unrecognizable behind a bushy mustache, plays Gotham's one good cop, while Morgan Freeman gets the 007 "Q" role, a scientist at Wayne Enterprises who supplies Bruce/Batman with all sorts of high-tech gadgetry. Michael Caine, meanwhile, provides some welcome comic relief as Albert, the Waynes' loyal butler.

There's one good sequence: The first time Batman makes his appearance in Gotham, stalking a bunch of gangsters unloading drugs by the docks. We barely glimpse Batman; he remains a ghostlike shadow, shrouded in darkness, and it perfectly illustrates how he planned to use fright to his advantage, to make himself seem as something beyond human. This is the exception, however, as most of the action sequences are a jumble of cuts and blurs, in which it's next to impossible to tell what's going on.

Ah, for the good days of TV's "Batman" with Adam West, where every punch was flagged with a screen-wide Pop Art "Zap!" or "Pow!" At least in those days people could see a bit of naff fun for what it was, and not expect "intellectual, psychological character studies" from a premise that pitted masked men in tights against cartoon villains like Riddler and Penguin.

Batman may still be seeking his vengeance 10 films from now, but the revenge of the nerds is complete: The immature, self-deceiving fantasies of comic books now dominate the cinema, and we are expected to take them seriously.

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