June 17, 2005

Batman Begins

Directed by Christopher Nolan Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Liam Neeson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Although Hollywood studios more often than not get things wrong, they do occasionally make serious efforts to handle a franchise with extra care when there is a fastidious fan base and hundreds of millions dollars at stake. They've come up with a few solid and even ingenious pairings between comic-book superheroes and reputable hotshot directors - Spider-Man with Sam Raimi, X-Men with Bryan Singer, and Batman with Tim Burton - which have spawned films that actually manage to balance extravagant style and excessive effects with captivating storytelling. But sometimes studios just can't help but mess things up despite their best intensions (i.e. The Hulk with Ang Lee). Even with Burton onboard as a producer, Joel Schumacher still turned tales of the Caped Crusader into campy overkill. The average fanboys didn't buy it, and the domestic gross of Batman & Robin failed to meet its budget.

While it's easy for anyone to improve upon Schumacher's takes, it's just as impossible to top Burton's. Now, it's up to Memento director Christopher Nolan to rescue the ailing franchise. There are probably worthier candidates for the job - Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro, Darren Aronofsky, Alex Proyas and David Cronenberg - but hey, Nolan has just directed Insomnia for Warner Bros.

Nolan's Batman Begins would seem to be on the right track with the choice of David S. Goyer of Dark City and the Blade trilogy to pen the screenplay. The movie opens with a series of crosscutting flashbacks to the formative years of Bruce Wayne - played by Gus Lewis and later by Christian Bale - as he develops a fear of bats, witnesses the murder of his parents and gets schooled in martial arts on the snowy slopes of Bhutan by Pat Morita-esque Jedi master Liam Neeson. But the film's deadly serious take unfortunately turns out to be somewhat ridiculous.

Burton's Batman and Batman Returns are infinitely darker for their moral ambiguity, but they also gleefully embrace their madcap comic-book origins. And just as Insomnia has demonstrated, Nolan isn't particularly interesting as a filmmaker when telling a story in straightforward chronological order. He isn't known for having visual panache, unless you count the fact that he shot Following in black and white. Batman Begins is stylistically incoherent, and it doesn't even establish the requisite gothic atmosphere of Gotham City.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.