The strutting bully that was the Batman franchise is no more. "Batman & Robin," the fourth film in the series, still preens and blusters, but there's no knockout punch. Lacking most kinds of inspiration and geared to undemanding minds, this project is so overloaded with hardware and stunts, it's a relief to have it over.
A film that boasts 10 Bat weapons specific enough to be mentioned in the press notes (plus four different "Batarangs") yet considers lines like "Freeze, you're mad" to be acceptable dialogue, "Batman & Robin" lives and dies by the aesthetic of excess, the familiar idea that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. You may admire its surface, but it is far too slick for even a toehold's worth of connection.
While it would take more time than it's worth to list all the wrinkles of the film's Akiva Goldsman plot, "Batman & Robin" has the eerie feeling of having no beginning, no middle and no end. Watching it is like stumbling into the world's longest coming attractions trailer, or a product reel for a special-effects house. Director Joel Schumacher, usually a genie of popular entertainment ("A Time to Kill," "Batman Forever"), has hit the repeat button once too often and found it stuck.
Having exhausted other plot formulations, this latest foray can be seen as thefamily values "Batman." Almost from the opening frame, Robin (Chris O'Donnell), the whiniest of heroes, acts up like a rebellious teenager, demanding a car and parental trust from the senior Bat (George Clooney this time around).
Then paterfamilias Alfred (Michael Gough) develops a serious ailment, leading to mumbles about mortality, and Alfred's niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) shows up and demands parity as Batgirl. It's too bad no one thought of casting Dr. Joyce Brothers as an evil therapist giving deadly psychiatric advice.
Instead, "Batman & Robin" makes do with two more conventional villains, both of whom, as it turns out, are perverted and demented idealists, people who were frustrated in their attempts to do good in the world and ended up terrorizing the vulnerable citizens of Gotham.
Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was once top scientist Dr. Victor Fries, Olympic athlete, Nobel Prize winner and all-around swell guy. But that was before his wife came down with a dread disease and Dr. Fries fell into a cryosolution that mutated his body something fierce. Now he's a walking Popsicle, a one-man Ice Age who wants millions of dollars to do more research or else he'll freeze Gotham till it turns blue.
Freeze's determination to chill everything in sight leads to a burst of verbal creativity, inspiring--if that's the word--lines like "Stay cool," "Talk about your cold shoulder" and "The iceman cometh." A product tie-in with Foster's Freeze is presumably in the works.
Villain No. 2 started out as mousy Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman), a scientist devoted to giving plants a fighting chance to take back the Earth. A sinister laboratory accident turns her into the vixenish Poison Ivy, a siren with lips so laced with venom that, as she puts it, "I'm literally to die for." Using a potion that clouds men's minds, she makes both Batman and Robin yearn for her charms, which, males being what they are, leads to conflicts that threaten to rip the Batpartnership apart.
While "Batman & Robin" is not lacking in events, its crises are invariably bogus; once the movie is over, it's impossible to differentiate one chaotic stunt-and-special-effect-filled episode from another.
Also, despite the impressive names in the cast, the film is indifferently acted, as if the second team were in to give the regulars a breather. Clooney, charming in "One Fine Day," neither hinders nor advances his chances at movie stardom here, which is more than can be said for his cohorts.
If all else fails, and it invariably does, it is possible to admire the scenery in "Batman & Robin." Really. Production designer Barbara Ling, working with supervising art director Richard Holland and visual effects veteran John Dykstra, has created a massive Gotham City that never fails to intrigue the eye. The film's look is all that money can buy, and, as always with blockbuster wannabes like this, it's a shame that money can't buy even more.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for strong stylized action and some innuendoes. Times guidelines: almost nonstop cartoonish violence.
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'Batman & Robin'
Arnold Schwarzenegger: Freeze/Dr. Victor Fries
George Clooney: Batman/Bruce Wayne
Chris O'Donnell: Robin/Dick Grayson
Uma Thurman: Poison Ivy/Dr. Pamela Isley
Alicia Silverstone: Batgirl/Barbara Wilson
Michael Gough: Alfred Pennyworth
Released by Warner Bros. Director Joel Schumacher. Producer Peter Macgregor-Scott. Executive producers Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan. Screenplay Akiva Goldsman. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt. Editor Dennis Virkler, Mark Stevens. Costumes Ingrid Ferrin, Robert Turturice. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Barbara Ling. Supervising art director Richard Holland. Art director Geoff Hubbard. Set decorator Doree Cooper. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.