MOVIE REVIEWS : Riddle Me This . . . : Is 'Batman Forever' or Just for the Moment? Hey, It's Summer. All You Need Are Heroes, Villains and Things That Go Boom.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Batman Forever" is not a film for the ages, but it will do for right now. If nameless dark forces compel a visit to a summer blockbuster, this loud and boisterous comic book confidential is serviceable enough to satisfy.

Did someone say loud? Jammed with massive explosions that are more jarring than exciting, "Batman" is also one of the season's noisiest efforts. If action directors took a pledge to detonate one less blast per picture and converted the money saved into a school lunch program, their core audience would be much better served.

Loudness is a drawback in the film's villains as well. Continuing an unfortunate trend that began with Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the first "Batman," the evildoers of the moment--Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Jim Carrey as the Riddler--are tirelessly over the top. This won't be a problem for the 14-year-olds in the audience, but older folks may find themselves begging for a little modulation.

Although all that noise will help draw the crowds, the surprise of this "Batman" is that the story's quiet moments (yes, it has them) are its most effective and its often neglected heroes turn out to be the most entertaining characters on screen.

To start at the top, Val Kilmer, a late-inning replacement for Michael Keaton, brings his ice-cold "Top Gun" persona to the dual role of caped crime-fighter and billionaire businessman Bruce Wayne and the fit is perfect. With steely eyes, inflectionless speech and a Zen-like calm, Kilmer is adept at both the heroic and the humorous aspects of his conflicted personality.

Just how conflicted is what Dr. Chase Meridian, a criminal psychologist specializing in multiple personalities, is keen to find out. Definitely on a roll after her performance in "To Die For" (slated to open in the fall after premiering at Cannes), Nicole Kidman brings a noticeable erotic charge to the proceedings as well as a fine sense of comic timing.

The rapport between her and Kilmer is excellent and leads to memorable scenes of tongue-in-cheek bantering. "I read your work, insightful," he tells her, "naive but insightful." "I'm flattered," she replies. "It's not every girl who makes it onto a super-hero's night table." A later conversation, which ends with him advising her to "try firemen" if she's into men in leather, "there's less to take off," is a small jewel of ribald innuendo.

Equally effective are the scenes involving Chris O'Donnell as Dick Grayson, a circus aerialist whom tragedy turns into Robin, the caped one's comrade-in-arms. Whether it's doing martial arts moves with his laundry or breezily calling Wayne's venerable butler Alfred (Michael Gough) "Al," O'Donnell gives his character the kind of presence that is becoming this young actor's trademark.

Working as much like a circus ringmaster as a director, Joel Schumacher has brought several critical qualities to the mix, starting with much more of a pop culture sensibility and a sense of fun than Tim Burton, who directed the first two pictures, and he has a stylish visual sensibility as well.

In collaboration with production designer Barbara Ling and her crew, Schumacher has kept the series' dark and monumental look (the legacy of Frank Miller's brilliant graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns") and, as advertised, lightened the project's overall tone. In his hands, even the kinky S&M; hoods and facial ornaments the bad guys wear seem surprisingly innocent.

And, like an experienced ringmaster, Schumacher and Oscar-nominated editor Dennis Virkler ("The Hunt for Red October," "The Fugitive") excel at keeping things moving. None of the film's several elements are allowed to be on the screen for too long, which, where Two-Face and the Riddler are concerned, is certainly a good thing.

For it takes little time for this pair to become tedious. With Jones, a gifted actor with no noticeable sense of humor, the problem is simply one of miscasting. With Carrey, one of the funniest of comic performers, it's more that no one thought it was necessary to tone him down. When his character asks at one point, "Was that over the top? I can never tell," it's a sad rather than a funny moment.

Though "Batman Forever" has three credited screenwriters (Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman, who worked with Schumacher on "The Client"), it is difficult at times to remember that it even has a plot. Basically, Two-Face and the Riddler are obsessed with accumulating money and power and eliminating Batman, while he, in addition to fending them off and fighting crime, has to decide how much he dares bring Dr. Chase and Robin into his double life. Just a typical interlude in the super-hero business.

Given its nearly $80-million budget and the accompanying need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, the kind of mixed bag "Batman Forever" presents is inevitable. Egregious villains and excessive explosions are the trade-off for the film's more genuinely playful moments, and of the three "Batman," films, this one makes that price most worth paying.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for strong stylized action. Times guidelines: filled with cartoonish violence.

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'Batman Forever' Val Kilmer: Batman Tommy Lee Jones: Two-Face Jim Carrey: The Riddler Nicole Kidman: Dr. Chase Meridian Chris O'Donnell: Robin A Tim Burton production, released by Warner Bros. Director Joel Schumacher. Producers Tim Burton, Peter MacGregor-Scott. Executive producers Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan. Screenplay Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman. Story by Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt. Editor Dennis Virkler. Costumes Bob Ringwood, Ingrid Ferrin. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Barbara Ling. Art directors Chris Burian-Mohr, Joseph P. Lucky. Set decorator Elise "Cricket" Rowland. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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