Yeah I was one of the many people who went to see The Dark Knight at the cinema without ever watching Christopher Nolan’s first installment in his dark and gritty Batman trilogy. Almost thirteen years later is still better than never I guess.
I think what I appreciated the most about this movie is that this Batman film is truly about Batman/Bruce Wayne. As great as The Dark Knight is, I always felt that Batman himself is maybe the fifth most interesting character in it, overshadowed not just by Heath Ledger’s unforgettable, iconic Joker but most of the supporting cast as well. In fact, my impression of Batman from all of the Batman films I’ve seen was that of a chin and a costume, rather than a person. Batman Begins feels like the only film to make him a fully realised character, using the origin story to really dig into Bruce Wayne’s tortured psyche and explore the twisted path that led him to become a caped crusader. Along the way, it makes a pretty convincing case of why a grown man would choose to dress like a bat in a film that’s at pain to remain realistic and grounded.
The first half of the film pieces Wayne’s past together in flashbacks: after watching his parents die at the hands of a petty thief (and believing himself responsible), young Bruce (Christian Bale) grows up wracked with guilt and smouldering with anger. After a twist of fate frustrates his quest for revenge, he forsakes his name and fortune and, in the present, finds himself in a nasty Bhutanese prison as part of his personal research into criminal world. There he’s rescued by the enigmatic Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a member of the mysterious League of Shadows, who offers Wayne mentorship in the martial arts. After Wayne discovers that the League membership involves something he’s not prepared to do (shouldn’t they ask the prospective members about where they stand on killing before they train them up?), he returns to Gotham City determined to fight evil his way. Thus begin the Batmobile, the suit, and so on.
To create a cover-up for his Batman persona, Wayne cultivates a high profile as a shallow millionaire playboy who parties with hot supermodels and gets drunk, which disappoints his old childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). She’s an idealist assistant D.A. determined to bring down a local crime lord Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), but his machinations are small potatoes compared to the plan of a sinister psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), which threatens the entire Gotham City. This is a fairly long film with a lot of plot and a whole swarm of villains – but unlike most other Batman films they don’t overshadow the hero.
I was never blown away with Christian Bale in the other two Nolan films (and his Batman voice is somewhat irritating even here), but in Batman Begins where he gets some juicy dramatic material to work with, he’s a perfect casting. He’s always been great at conveying a still-waters-run-deep quality and it fits the character. The supporting cast is a veritable Who is Who of stellar veteran actors, including Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon, Michael Caine as the loyal butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as the science genius Lucius Fox.
The only weak link is Katie Holmes as Rachel; I don’t want to rag too much on her though since a stronger and more idiosyncratic actress like Maggie Gyllenhaal couldn’t lift the character either in The Dark Knight. Though he’s brilliant at getting inside the minds of his troubled male protagonists, female characters and romance were never Nolan’s greatest strengths. Also, some of the action is the kind of chaotic close-ups that give me headache, and a sequence earlier in the film involving dozens of ninjas is less effective and sharp than it could have been. These are minor complaints though, overall Batman Begins is gripping, intelligent, grounded and packing in a surprising amount of humour. Hans Zimmer’s score is fabulous, as well.