- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

“Batman Begins” is in no way the sort of fast food friendly tie-in that easily linked marketing campaigns for the younger set to earlier “Bat” features.

That’s a relief, given how far the film series fell with 1997’s “Batman & Robin,” which turned the Caped Crusader into a nipple-bearing dandy.

Sadly, the new Bat feature, which opens today, proves heroic intentions aren’t enough to resuscitate the franchise.

This Batman broods like an indie film antihero, but director Christopher Nolan (2002’s “Insomnia”) forgets that a superhero yarn deserves grand action and villains worth losing sleep over. Adults will cheer the level of reality grafted onto Bob Kane’s creation. Yet that allegiance will be shaken by Mr. Nolan’s artless action sequences and sticky pacing.

He even bungles the Batmobile. The nifty 2005 model slogs through Gotham’s streets as if its tires were spinning in mud.

The 1989 “Batman” — starring a surprisingly stoic Michael Keaton — gave us the requisite flashback to show what inspired a young Bruce Wayne to dress up like an overgrown bat. Here, its origin is told in full, and it’s a doozy.

At first, we see an adult Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) fighting his inner demons along with fellow prisoners in an Asian prison. His descent to the depths of grief and incarceration began as a boy when he watched his parents’ murder at the hands of a thug outside an opera house. Young Bruce blames himself for their offing. His parents left the show early to assuage their son’s nerves.

Fast forward to the present when Bruce is eventually rescued from the Asian prison by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a mysterious member of the League of Shadows who channels Bruce’s rage into a lethal weapon. When Bruce realizes the League has a duplicitous agenda, he flees, returning to his Gotham City roots to apply his new skills.

Gotham, an amalgam of glimmering buildings and retro train systems, has grown even more corrupt in his absence. A crime lord named Carmine Falcone (a rare misstep by Tom Wilkinson) has half the police force in his breast pocket, and the efforts of a noble district attorney and childhood pal of Bruce — played by Katie Holmes —only go so far. But she soon has the Dark Knight on her side.

Bruce plucks military goodies from his Wayne Empire to create an alter ego meant to instill fear in his enemies’ hearts. He’ll need every weapon his friend Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) has to offer, since a criminal psychiatrist (Cillian Murphy) is helping Falcone keep the city under his thumb.

The doctor also happens to be Scarecrow, an old Batman villain who spreads a fear-inducing mist through slits in the potato sack mask he wears.

Casting Mr. Bale as the superhero gives “Batman Begins” its best chance at recapturing the comic character’s mojo. He’s handsome without being bland, with an underlying spark of menace lurking beneath those perfectly crafted features.

For a while, his presence and the seriousness of the endeavor is enough to hold the film together, but slowly and surely Mr. Nolan’s creation begins to splinter.

Casting missteps account for some of the blame. Michael Caine is solid but too identifiable to be playing the loyal butler Alfred, and Miss Holmes looks like a teenager padding around in her mother’s shoes as the supposedly tough DA. Mr. Murphy’s baby face can’t convey the Scarecrow’s evil, nor is Gary Oldman given anything to do but follow Batman around like a puppy as the man who would be Commissioner Gordon.

These all could be forgiven if Mr. Nolan could string together a battle sequence worthy of our hero. His idea of staging a fight is to plunge the set into darkness and zoom the camera so tightly on the punches being thrown that we can’t tell which fist belongs to whom.

He also believes Batman should be the main attraction, not the supervillains. But you need a powerful antagonist to set the hero on edge, and neither Mr. Murphy’s character nor the mystery figure who appears in the final reel meets that test.

It’s all well and good to treat Batman with the respect the cultural icon deserves. But Mr. Nolan, like Ang Lee before him with the ill-fated “Hulk,” loses sight of just what made the source material endure and enthrall.

**1/2

TITLE: “Batman Begins”

RATING: PG-13 (Intense battle sequences and violence, frightening imagery)

CREDITS: Directed by Christopher Nolan. Script by Mr. Nolan and David S. Goyer based on a character created by Bob Kane. Original score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

WEB SITE: www.batmanbegins.warnerbros.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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