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Dark Was The Young Knight,
This review is from: Batman Begins - 1 Disc Edition [DVD]  (DVD)
Near the big-bang finish of ''Batman Begins,'' the title avenger, played by the charismatic young British actor Christian Bale, scoops up a damsel in distress, played by Katie Holmes, and spirits her away to his lair. Watching this scene, it was hard not to think how nice it would have been if Batman had instead dispatched the infernally perky actress, whose recent off-screen antics have threatened to eclipse this unexpectedly good movie. As it happens, the most memorable rescue mission in ''Batman Begins'' isn't engineered by the caped crusader, but by the film's director, Christopher Nolan.
''Batman Begins'' is the seventh live-action film to take on the comic-book legend and the first to usher it into the kingdom of movie myth. Conceived in the shadow of American pop rather than in its bright light, this tense, effective iteration of Bob Kane's original comic book owes its power and pleasures to a director who takes his material seriously and to a star who shoulders that seriousness with ease. Until now, Mr. Bale, who cut his teeth working with Steven Spielberg on ''Empire of the Sun'' almost two decades ago, has been best known for his scarily plausible performance in ''American Psycho,'' an intellectual horror movie that now seems like a prelude to this one: think American Psycho redux, this time in tights.
As sleek as a panther, with cheekbones that look sharp enough to give even an ardent lover pause, Mr. Bale makes a superbly menacing avenger. His Batman is leagues away from Adam West's cartoony persona, which lumbered across American television screens in the mid- and late-60's with zap and pow, but never an ounce of real wow. Mr. Bale even improves on Michael Keaton, who donned Batman's cape both in Tim Burton's 1989 ''Batman'' and its funhouse sequel three years later, and gave the character a jolt of menace. What Mr. Keaton couldn't bring to the role, and what Mr. Bale conveys effortlessly, is Bruce Wayne's air of casual entitlement, the aristocratic hauteur that is the necessary complement of Batman's obsessive megalomania.
What Mr. Nolan gets, and gets better than any other previous director, is that without Bruce Wayne, Batman is just a rich wacko with illusions of grandeur and a terrific pair of support hose. Without his suave alter ego, this weird bat man is a superhero without humanity, an avenger without a conscious, an id without a superego. Which is why, working from his and David S. Goyer's very fine screenplay, Mr. Nolan more or less begins at the beginning, taking Batman back to his original trauma and the death of his parents. With narrative economy and tangible feeling, he stages that terrible, defining moment when young Master Wayne watched a criminal shoot his parents to death in a Gotham City alley, thereby setting into motion his long, strange journey into the self.
The story opens with the adult Bruce in the middle of that journey, in the far reaches of Asia, where he first rubs shoulders with ''the criminal fraternity,'' then a clandestine brotherhood called the League of Shadows. Lead by a warrior sensei, Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), and his aide, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, at his lethal best), the league invites Bruce into its fold, an offer he violently declines. Thereafter, he returns to Gotham City, where he assumes a dual identity as both the city's wealthiest citizen and its avenging angel. Intrigue ensues involving a crime lord played with brio by Tom Wilkinson, a headshrinker brought to skin-crawling life by Cillian Murphy and the last honest cop in Gotham, James Gordon, given expressive poignancy by a restrained Gary Oldman.
It's amazing what an excellent cast, a solid screenplay and a regard for the source material can do for a comic book movie. Unlike Robert Rodriguez, whose faithfulness to Frank Miller's comic sucked the juice out of ''Sin City,'' Mr. Nolan approaches Batman with respect rather than reverence. It's obvious that Mr. Nolan has made a close study of the Batman legacy, but he owes a specific debt to Mr. Miller's 1980's rethink of the character, which resurrected the Dark Knight side of his identity. Like Mr. Miller's Batman, Mr. Nolan's is tormented by demons both physical and psychological. In an uncertain world, one the director models with an eye to our own, this is a hero caught between justice and vengeance, a desire for peace and the will to power.
That struggle gives the story its requisite heft, but what makes this ''Batman'' so enjoyable is how Mr. Nolan balances the story's dark elements with its light, and arranges the familiar genre elements in new, unforeseen ways. Weaned on countless comics and a handful of movies, we may think we know the bat cave like we know the inside of our childhood bedroom. But to watch Bruce Wayne stand in the atmospheric gloom of this new cavern, surrounded by a cloud of swirling bats, is to see the underground refuge for the first time. Likewise the Batmobile, which here resembles a Hummer that looks as if it had been gently flattened by a Bradley tank, then tricked out for some hard street racing with fat tires and gleaming black paint.
As is often the case with movies about toys and boys, ''Batman Begins'' drags on too long, but even the reflexively Bruckheimer-like finish can't diminish its charms. Mr. Nolan needs to work on his action: Fred Astaire made sure that he was filmed so that you could see the entirety of his body, advice this director should have heeded when shooting his superhero. Still, what makes ''Batman Begins'' the most successful comic-book adaptation alongside Terry Zwigoff's ''Ghost World'' isn't the noisy set pieces, the nods to ''Blade Runner'' or the way a child's keepsake, an Indian arrowhead, echoes the shape of a bat. It's the way Mr. Nolan invites us to watch Bruce Wayne quietly piecing together his Batman identity, to become a secret sharer to a legend, just as we did once upon a time when we read our first comic.