Fly Back into the Past with 'Batman Begins' (2005)/Directed by Christopher Nolan/Grade: B+
In anticipation of finally seeing The Dark Knight (2008) on the big screen for the first time tonight, I decided to revisit its predecessor, Batman Begins (2005), for the first time in awhile. While it definitely has its shortcomings, it's safe to say it still holds up overall. The grounded and gritty vision Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer conjured in the screenplay is realized beautifully in the production design by Nathan Crowley, Lindy Hemming's wonderful costumes, and the usage of real Chicago locations.
I will also say that the performances are mostly excellent. Christian Bale, from the beginning (pun intended), showcases quickly why he's the best live-action Bruce Wayne we've ever had. Every solemn look, the way he carries himself throughout daily life, truly makes you feel the pain and trauma this character has experienced. Michael Caine is also easily the best incarnation of Bruce's butler Alfred Pennyworth. As opposed to the mere role of butler, which every previous iteration of the character came off as, this version feels more like a father figure, a foster parent who stepped in after the murder of Bruce's biological parents. There's real time devoted to developing the duo's connection, and as a result, it's the most moving part of the experience.
Liam Neeson is also stunning in one of his best performances as Ra's Al Ghul, the villain of the picture. Elegant, strategic, cunning and vile, he's a physically skilled manipulator of an antagonist. Gary Oldman is just fine as Lieutenant Gordon, although he would later be given much more to work with in The Dark Knight. Morgan Freeman is also merely serviceable as Lucius Fox. Cillian Murphy is suitably chilling as Dr. Crane/The Scarecrow; however, the evil alter ego is given too short a shrift to truly stick as a terrifying threat.
But the only bad performance here is by Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, a Gotham DA, as well as Bruce's childhood friend and crush. Never once did I buy her as a tough, take-charge lawyer, nor did I buy her as a sympathetic best friend. It all feels like an act, and in this more realistic take on the caped crusader's world, that shouldn't be the case. Thank goodness Maggie Gyllenhaal came along for the sequel, as I felt she wore that role like a second skin.
I also found the action sequences to be a thoroughly mixed bag. I understand that this movie shows Batman piecing together his fighting style, but the early action sequences are very over edited, as in a chase scene involving Batman and a convoy of policemen. No shot lasts long enough for it to leave an impact. Only from the end of the second act, and throughout the third act, does the cutting of the action improve.
I did appreciate the luminous score by James Newton Howard, which is evocative and filled with rich emotion, just right for every scene without forcefully instructing you how to feel. Hans Zimmer may be most associated with the music for this trilogy, but it was Howard who gave him such a solid foundation to build on.
Overall, Batman Begins is an enjoyable, moving, flawed start to an iconic cinematic series. Its action isn't the greatest, but it creates characters we can care about, is (mostly) technically well-crafted, and appropriately spends much more time developing Bruce the character than on Batman fighting crime. If you're a fan of this comic book creation, check it out. Just lower your expectations if you expect a flawless masterpiece.
Side note: If you want a perfect Batman movie that also shows the character's origins, check out the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993). One of the best superhero pictures ever made, in my opinion.