"BATMAN BEGINS," starring Christian Bale, doesn’t jump in your face the way summer would-be blockbusters usually do, with special effects, crowd-pleasing antics between two sexy people, and a great villain. And it’s almost entirely free of the kind of camp that vamped up the post-Tim Burton "Batman" films.
Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan’s story, which pays obvious respect to the original characters created by Bob Kane, is darkly entrancing, rather than, you know, Stand Back for the Shock and Awe. The story concentrates on Bruce Wayne’s evolution into Batman, his martial arts apprenticeship with a certain Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), and his setting up shop at Wayne Manor, rather than those traditional, Gothic smash-’em-ups atop vertiginous Manhattan buildings. You have to sit down and experience this saga, piece by fascinating piece.
But don’t get the wrong message, popcorn poppers. "Batman Begins" has its share of summer-movie enticements, including Katie Holmes and computer-generated bats. Holmes is a pretty lass who’s riding a massive crest of publicity, thanks to her part in the ongoing E!ffair she’s having with Tom Cruise, who seems to have leapt into her soul with the speed and efficiency of Lestat, his character from "Interview With the Vampire." And Holmes is perfectly respectable, though not outstanding, as Rachel Dawes, an assistant district attorney who becomes intrigued with millionaire mystery man Bruce Wayne (Bale), her childhood friend.
As the object of Rachel’s fascination, Bale is not only physically toned (a very important part of an actor’s preparation these days) but delivers an intense, affecting performance. And yes, he pulls out a can of Bat-Whup when necessary.
Young Bruce doesn’t like bats, as we see in a traumatic childhood incident. And it is this phobia that indirectly leads to an even more tragic event, the loss of his parents. He becomes determined to understand the criminal mind. And this journey leads him to a bleak prison somewhere in the Far East and, later, to a long session with a powerful warrior named Ducard, who takes Bruce as a student. One of the first classes involves facing that fear of bats. After Bruce completes his often brutal training, he’s invited to join the League of Shadows, a disciplined vigilante group under the stern leadership of Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe).
But when Bruce learns the league intends to wipe out Gotham City as part of its moral-cleansing agenda, he breaks ranks and goes it alone. This is not what you’d call an amicable split; bones are broken and property is burned down. But Bruce is a made man now, and it’s up to him for the rest of the movie to build himself into a superhero. With the help of his parents’ faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and a gadget whiz named Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, pretty much functioning here as Q from the James Bond films), Bruce becomes the Batman we know, complete with the bat cave, some excellent body armor and a pretty cool, all-purpose armored supercar. Bruce also devises the look and the hook of his soon-to-be alter ego: Maybe a cape? And a mask? He gets friendly, too, with police officer and future commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).
After that, it’s a matter of fighting Ra’s al Ghul’s gang for the right to clean up Gotham City his way. First bad guy on the Batman agenda: a gimlet-eyed psychiatrist (Cillian Murphy), with a scary alter ego named Scarecrow, who turns people into patients.
Like its caped character, "Batman Begins" emerges from the darkness and leaves a powerful, lasting impression. It’s a thoughtful, methodically structured narrative that works on you for days afterward. That’s to be expected from Nolan, whose looking-backward movie "Memento" has become the toast of a generation, and his co-writer, David S. Goyer, who penned all three "Blade" movies. Nolan’s street cred is massive. And it will continue, thanks to this film. When the all-important opening weekend is done, and everyone decides whether the movie’s a teeny, medium or mega theatrical hit, it’ll just be the beginning. This "Batman" asks to be reckoned with intelligently and that, sooner or later, will yield many bounties — if not now, then certainly in its DVD afterlife. George Lucas would have done well to have seen this film before he scripted his "Star Wars" prequels. For here’s how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere.