In conjunction for the opening week of Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (read my review here) around the world, here's my in-depth review on his first chapter in the Batman trilogy, BATMAN BEGINS back in 2005:
The history of Bob Kane's legendary Batman comic had gone through all kind of various facelifts spun by an assortment of comic-book writers and the history of Batman behind the filmmaking experience shared the equally similar trial and tribulation. After BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997) flopped critically and commercially in the box-office, all blame pointed out directly to director Joel Schumacher who has single-handedly damaged the once-profitable Warner Bros' superhero-movie franchise into such embarrassing loss until the proposed fifth installment of BATMAN series is kept in hibernation for a long period of time.
So it wasn't surprising that the fifth movie plagued with so much problem to get everything in order here. Despite Schumacher's ultimate failure in BATMAN AND ROBIN, he was attached to direct the fifth film based on the Batman: Year One saga, but eventually left the project.
After that, producers had finally decided to do an even darker approach (something they should had done a long time ago before they brought in Schumacher again), and officially asked David Fincher (PANIC ROOM) to helm the movie, who was sadly declined.
In an odd move, there was one point the producers considered an older Batman, with Clint Eastwood taking the director's seat as well as donning the cape.
Then in 2002, producers had greenlit a mega-budget BATMAN vs. SUPERMAN movie with Wolfgang Petersen at the helm, and everything was almost came true until Petersen opted instead to make TROY (2004). Since BATMAN vs. SUPERMAN wasn't going to work out anytime soon, producers went back to search the next director for the fifth movie. Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski were also being approached to direct but turned down the offer to opt for THE MATRIX sequels instead.
Then came Darren Aronofsky, a cult favorite who helmed small-scale pictures including REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), was attached to make a BATMAN movie based on the graphic novel, Batman: Year One and attached the author, Frank Miller to pen the screenplay. Even though there was a first draft screenplay, together with story boards in 2003, it was clearly unknown why Warner Bros decided not to produce the movie. Still there were speculations where it would probably had to do with the screenplay leaked out where Miller's version was reportedly sounds too far off from the source material. Could you imagine Alfred the butler as an African-American mechanic nicknamed as "Big Al", or the fact that Batmobile was being modified instead into a souped-up Lincoln Towncar and even transformed the wealthy Bruce Wayne as a homeless character?
But Warner Bros had eventually started up something to a point when director Christopher Nolan (MEMENTO, INSOMNIA) is brought in and confirmed to direct the fifth movie. At this point, there were various problems where the title underwent through many changes. It was originally known as BATMAN 5, before it became BATMAN: THE FRIGHTENING for a while until the Shepperton Studios' website has seemingly confirmed with BATMAN: INTIMIDATION GAME, before finalizing into BATMAN BEGINS.
The main casting was also another huge problem, particularly finding the best candidate to play Bruce Wayne/Batman character. A large number of actors were considered for the role that include Guy Pearce, Ashton Kutcher (give me a break!), David Boreanaz of TV's Angel, John Cusack (are you kidding me?), David Duchovny, Joshua Jackson, Eion Bailey, Billy Crudup, Cillian Murphy (Nolan liked his audition so much, he cast him instead as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow), Henry Cavill, Jake Gyllenhaal (he was writer David S. Goyer's favorite pre-audition choice) and newcomer Hugh Dancy, before the unknown (at least in mainstream Hollywood) Christian Bale had unexpectedly won over in the audition test and secured the role.
When everything becomes full circle, it seems a smart move for the producers to re-ignite the BATMAN franchise into a whole new level. Instead of a fifth follow-up to BATMAN AND ROBIN, we get BATMAN BEGINS, an obvious title of a prequel. The result is, of course, far superior than the vulgar excesses of Joel Schumacher's cheerfully and hideously camp sequels (BATMAN FOREVER, BATMAN AND ROBIN) and less stylized than Tim Burton's darkly macabre BATMAN (1989) and BATMAN RETURNS (1992). It's a case of relief that Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer's somber prequel finally puts the darkness back in the Dark Knight's corner of crime-fighting hell in Gotham City. No fancy costumes. No cheesy villains. No colorful pyrotechnics. No shameless in-jokes. No overkill. Just the one that comes close to the source material we have come to know in the comic book.
After a black-and-white credit sequence, the film immediately lures us with the chronicles of Bruce Wayne in two periods of his life: as a naive 8-year-old boy (Gus Lewis) who experienced his first brush with fear (where he discovers a deep well that leads to a hidden cavern filled with bats) and the life-altering trauma of witnessing his parents' (Sara Stewart, Linus Roache) is being gunned down by a desperate thief at the very night after an opera show.
Fast-forward in the future, we are now introduced to the unkempt-looking adult Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), as a lost soul in a hellish prison in the Far East. It is learned that Bruce has actually traveled the world to educate himself on the criminal mind ever since he has been tormented by the murders of his parents. It doesn't take long before he is rescued from prison by a mysterious warrior named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who later teaches Bruce to master his emotions and gives him the mental and physical discipline to fight off his enemies. Once Bruce is ready, Ducard wants him to join the League of Shadows, an underground vigilante organization headed by the stoic Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). To prove his faith against the organization, Bruce has to decapitate a killer prisoner but he can't commit a murder and ultimately refuses to battle evil with evil. He chooses to betray the League of Shadows and killed Ra's al Ghul during a fiery attack at the temple. He managed to save the unconscious Ducard in the process and left him somewhere safe where a local is kind enough to take care of him.
Bruce eventually returns home to take up residence in his parents' country manor, with the family's trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) continues to be his mentor and a servant to his Master Bruce. But after so many years of missing, Bruce is sad to find out that Gotham City is getting worse than ever, riddled with so much criminal that even the police doesn't have enough strength to keep the city in peace. The city is now overrun by a notorious crime gang headed by Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and the seemingly only honest cop is Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Bruce also finds out that his father's once philanthropic Wayne Enterprises now in the dirty hands of a greedy CEO Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), who holds most of the company's share and learns that his beautiful childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes) has become an assistant D.A.
Now Bruce's ultimate plan is to clean up Gotham City for good, bit by bit. So Bruce uses whatever education he has once been taught to channel his darkest impulses into a symbol of justice and order born of ninja stealth. He started out by using the high-tech customized accessories developed by Wayne Enterprises, headed by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and revived his childhood memory by entering into a cavern near his manor to encounter a blinding twister of bats -- thus transforming his lifelong fear into an ultimate symbol and eventually becoming a masked crime-fighter, shaped in a bat-like form at night and calls himself as Batman.
Like Bryan Singer in X-MEN (2000) and X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003) and Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN (2002) and SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004), Christopher Nolan is obviously an odd choice to take up the directing job, considering he has no experience in helming big-budget action picture before. But like the latter, he overcomes (most) of the odds that he make use of his usual sensibility to flesh out his character and the story inside out where he and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer combined their craftsmanship with respectful knowledge of the Batman mythology to result a film that is emotionally involving and logical to a point you won't find Bruce Wayne dressing up as the costumed superhero known as Batman looks like a silly wacko appearing all over the city. To say whether this is faithful adaptation of Batman comic is a bit out of question, since Nolan and Goyer has extracted a bit out of everything they come to study in the various reincarnation of the source material.
But whichever it is, their story is undeniably grim, dark and downright somber, making BATMAN BEGINS a more tragic and seethed with creepy tension where Batman is more of just a masked superhero who fights crime with his fancy gadgets. Nolan depicts him as a phantom figure of fear, not a one-man fighting human being we used to know in the previous movie version. So it's easy for us to root Batman as a realistic figure whose heroics are the outgrowth of planning and psychology, not superhuman abilities. This is such an accomplished effort that Nolan's bold take in going for darker tones and Frank Miller-style noir touches is so much of a risk that audiences might feel alienated. Still given the fact that he is a gifted filmmaker, he manages to mix the tormented drama and revenge-driven motives with lighthearted gags and plenty of comic-book allusions.
But really, what makes BATMAN BEGINS an engrossing watch, is how Nolan reaches out deep inside to penetrate through the psyche of Bruce Wayne character that we understand more of his motives, rather than accepting the simple fact that he is tormented by his parent's death and eventually drives him to become Batman to fight crime. No such thing for Nolan, because he understands that for the audience to hook up with Batman, the other half of his ego has to be studied. In the previous four BATMAN movies, both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher weren't interested to make Bruce Wayne a credible character.
The first half of the movie makes up of everything for us to know and understand Bruce Wayne better, that you can feel the tormented pain as well as the soul-searching core he has been through where he ceases to fight against his own demon before finally uses his anger to overcome the criminal.
Of course, no part of Bruce Wayne would have comes to life if the actor doesn't make his character a flesh-and-blood reality. Here, Christian Bale succeeds admirably -- he's energetic and charismatic enough with an idealistic build, not to mention his brooding look to make him a perfect Bruce Wayne/Batman combination ever seen in a Batman movie. In fact he's the best over the previous bunch, which includes the miscast Michael Keaton; the pathetic-looking Val Kilmer and the all-too-glamorous George Clooney. No doubt that Bale gives a subtle and emotionally-involving performance that he's even better when he is known as Bruce Wayne.
The supporting cast are equally excellent, proving that Nolan shows out every care for each of the characters fleshed out here. Michael Caine is pitch-perfect as the faithful butler, Alfred with his trademark dry wit and noble charm; Liam Neeson is perfectly typecast as the shady guru Henri Ducard; Katie Holmes is effective as Rachel the assistant D.A.; Gary Oldman, in a rare good-guy turn as Jim Gordon; Cillian Murphy in his sinister turn as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow, master of Arkham Asylum; Tom Wilkinson in a sharp turn as Carmine Falcone, Gotham's last "old-school" thug; Rutger Hauer as the cunning CEO Richard Earle, and Morgan Freeman, fresh off from his Oscar Best Supporting Actor win this year for a role in MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004), is amusingly laidback as the "Q"-like gadget-man, Lucius Fox. Even the tiny role by the likes of Linus Roache as Bruce's doomed father and a homeless man, performed by veteran actor Rade Sherbedgia are given share of limelights here.
Technical credits are overall impressive with Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's combined score is heartfelt and rousing, though there's no denying that Danny Elfman's original score who first contributed in 1989's BATMAN is far superior. Production designer Nathan Crowley re-creates the familiar Gotham City with a bit of facelift by making the surrealistic metropolis a realistic touch that reminiscent of America's past, particularly in the '30s as well as a future that never was. Wally Pfister's atmospheric cinematography is effectively conveyed the nightmarish city filled with despair, danger and of course, fear of darkness. Lindy Hemming's costumes design is thankfully devoid of colorful feeling where everything aren't overexposing, especially where the Batman costume are perfectly understated.
But superior characterizations and well-nourished story aside, the action is decidedly a mixed bag -- good but hardly spectacular. Though the car chase is perfectly shot in such dramatic motion as if you're watching a real-time TV action news, the fight sequences and the rest of the stuntswork are constructed in tight shots and quick edits, where at times we hardly see a thing. This is where Nolan is being inconsistent when comes to deliver action sequences -- one of the major parts he should improved in the future.
Another missing spark here is the way Nolan's lackluster depiction of Batman to make him all the more thrilling figure to watch for. Once the movie kicks thing off in the second half with Batman appearing on the screen, all those iconic images and dramatic situations should accompanied with exhilaration and satisfied recognition but die-hard fans and audiences alike will be likely disappointed to see that the Batman here is less consistent.
BATMAN BEGINS may have soared too much on an artistic level and less on commercial value, but fear not, there will be another BATMAN movie since Nolan and Christian Bale are reportedly sign in for two more sequels. The very ending where Gordon shown Batman a piece of gambling card where there is a newcomer villain about to stalk Gotham City -- need I say who that might be? -- is enough to convince us that greater thing will come in the next installment.