3 stars (out of four)
In "Batman Begins," which re-ignites the bat-saga, Christian Bale is the new face of the bat-guy and his secret identity Bruce Wayne, following Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney in the latest movies, and Adam West on the '60s TV show. And Bale's is a grimmer, tauter, more serious face, swallowed up in the shadows of a darker, tauter, more serious movie. He's a wounded man hell-bent on revenge against the evil world that slaughtered his parents and scarred him.
The series fizzled out back in 1997, with the featherweight "Batman and Robin" -- in which Clooney drove the Batmobile and Arnold Schwarzenegger lamely cavorted as campy villain Dr. Freeze. Director-co-writer Christopher Nolan ("Memento") transforms it into one of the artier, more noir-drenched, psychologically tortured and memorable of all the recent big comic-book hero movies.
It's the best of the Batman series since director Tim Burton moved on after 1992: a violently kinetic, eerie portrait of a revenge-driven, two-faced hero -- frivolous playboy socialite Bruce Wayne by day and masked crime-fighter Batman by night -- waging pathological warfare against the fiendish master criminals who have turned Gotham City (partly re-created in Chicago) into hell on Earth. That horrific rogue's gallery includes brutal mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), smarmy Dr. Jonathan Crane, alias "The Scarecrow" ("28 Days Later's" Cillian Murphy) and the Enron-style corporate snake trying to steal Wayne Industries, nefarious Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer). As if that weren't enough, the Joker leaves his calling card by the film's end.
Along the way, we see again that traumatic event, which, as imagined by Batman's creator, Bob Kane, started the character off in the '30s: the killing of little Bruce Wayne's parents by a stickup man and Bruce's consequent vow to become the scourge of crime. But Nolan and co-writer David Goyer (of the "Blade" series) have added something: a samurai warrior education sequence shot in Iceland -- one part "Kung Fu" and two parts "Kill Bill"-- in which stern mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and deadly antagonist Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) teach and test young Bruce, setting him on the road to glory and infamy as Gotham's caped crimebuster.
That's the alliterative way Kane and his successors used to describe Batman -- a masked marvel and urban Übermensch who, I confess, was one of the heroes of my youth. It's one of the strengths of this movie that, despite the enormous risks Nolan takes in going for darker tones and Frank Miller-style noir touches, he's able to comfortably mix the tormented drama and revenge motifs with light hearted gags and comic book allusions, including a barrage of arch cracks and takes from Michael Caine as Wayne's truly unflappable butler, Alfred.
Bale may not be the best Batman; in a very grim movie, he's heroic/charismatic but often too humorless, at least until the wisecracks start flowing in the second half. But Caine is definitely the best Alfred. With Jeeves-like omnipotence, Caine's Alfred guides his master through introductions of the Batcave, the Bat-signal and the Batmobile ("Do you have one in black?" Batman wonders).
Caine also heads a stellar troupe of Bat allies that include Neeson's iron-hard but ambivalent Ducard (with Caine, the movie's top performance), Katie Holmes as idealist love interest Rachel Dawes, Gary Oldman in a rare good-guy turn as Jim Gordon (a cop we know will make Commissioner someday) and this movie's equivalent for gadget-master Q of the James Bond series, Morgan Freeman as wry-faced Lucius Fox.
Nolan is responsible for two unusually brainy movie thrillers: the brilliant jigsaw-in-reverse amnesia mystery "Memento" and the smart but pretentious Al Pacino-Robin Williams remake of Norway's "Insomnia." But though both Nolan's previous movies seethed with creepy tension, neither was especially funny. That's the major lack in "Batman Begins," which has its humorous side but doesn't ratchet it up in the manner the audience may expect. If "Batman Begins" fails to connect with a huge audience, that will probably be the reason.
Still, like director Bryan Singer, who went from "The Usual Suspects" to the "X-Men" series, Nolan is a fascinating, offbeat choice for a huge movie franchise such as this. Just as Bale turns Batman into a near-tragic obsessive -- a Scarlet Pimpernel with the soul of a Hamlet and Monte Cristo -- Nolan turns "Batman Begins" into something much closer to Miller's "Dark Knight" interpretation than the glamorous, slam-bang Hollywood jokefests into which the series had slipped by "Batman and Robin" time.
"Batman Begins" reverses the slide, at least on an artistic level. And, win or lose, we know one thing for sure: There'll always be another Batman, waiting to slip on another Bat-mask.
Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Nolan, David S. Goyer from a story by Goyer, based on Batman characters created by Bob Kane and published by DC Comics; photographed by Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; production designed by Nathan Crowley; supervising art director, Simon Lamont; music by Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard; produced by Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Larry Franco. A Warner Bros. release of a Syncopy production; opens 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. Running time: 2:20. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense action, violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements).
Bruce Wayne/Batman - Christian Bale
Alfred - Michael Caine
Henri Ducard - Liam Neeson
Rachel Dawes - Katie Holmes
Jim Gordon - Gary Oldman
Dr. Jonathan Crane - Cillian Murphy
Carmine Falcone - Tom Wilkinson
Richard Earle - Rutger Hauer
Ra's al Ghul - Ken Watanabe
Lucius Fox - Morgan FreemanCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times