DVD Review: Batman Begins

..things never seem to be quite so simple these days. Pubs have crèches in them, petrol stations try to be mini-supermarkets and so on: everything becomes blurred.

 

DVD Review: Batman Begins

 

If I walked into a crèche, opened a can of beer and lit a cigarette, I would, quite rightly, be thrown out. Similarly, no one under the age of 18 should be allowed in pubs. But things never seem to be quite so simple these days. Pubs have crèches in them, petrol stations try to be mini-supermarkets and so on: everything becomes blurred. It is even the case with films these days. If I want to watch a film that looks at the problems of adolescence, or that dissects modern relationships, or that meditates on life and death, I'd watch something by Ingmar Bergman or some such gloomy bugger.

 

The recent trend – and who's heart didn't drop when they heard that Ang Lee was directing Hulk – has been to try and add 'depth' to superhero films, to make their heroes deal with the everyday problems of existence. Now then, we all know that our superheroes are forced to make sacrifices in the course of their lives, whether they are Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, or whoever, but at the end of the day they run around in tights and fight goblins, scarecrows and penguins. The balance has been lost: even in the recent Spiderman films too much time was spent moping and not enough spent kicking ass. We are left with the worst of both worlds: banal observations and anaemic action. Incidentally, does anyone else find Tobey Maguire a scary individual? He has the deadest eyes I have ever seen.

 

So, by way of an introduction to the review, this is my plea to filmmakers – understand the genre you are working in. Play with it, stretch the boundaries by all means, but don't misunderstand it by trying to think that you are 'too good' for it. Batman has been kicking around in development hell for some time now. At one point Clint was down to play him – a superhero unable to hang up his boots. This idea never had legs – Clint, in a batsuit? I know he's played opposite a chimp (and even Kevin Costner) but Clint in tights?

 

The reason, of course, that Batman has been kicking around for so long was that Joel Schumacher made such a dog's breakfast of the last one. Not only did Batman and Robin nearly kill George Clooney's film career before it had begun, it also featured Arnie (as Mr. Freeze) uttering such gems as 'Ice to see you'. It confirmed that Schumacher is, by a country mile at least, the worst filmmaker of his generation. In fact it was so bad that I had to watch Italian neo-realist films for weeks afterwards just to get the smell out of my brain.

 

Schumacher didn't think he was too good for the genre – give him that – but I also don't want my films to seem as though they've been directed by a tasteless, hperactive twelve year old. But wait – as we're never going to see a Bergman film featuring explosions (with Max Von Sydow diving towards us to escape from the flames) what about getting Schumacher to do a version of Pride and Prejudice? Just to level things up for Hulk. Picture it: "But Mr. Schumacher, they didn't have neon lights in nineteenth century England." Anyway. Christopher Nolan and his fellow scriptwriter David Goyer have chosen, probably wisely, to begin at the beginning and not at the end. Christian Bale steps into the batsuit.

 

The decision to start at the beginning has posed them with a problem though: everyone knows about the death of Bruce's parents, so how are they going to keep people entertained as the background to Batman is sketched in? Well, Nolan and Goyer do it by flicking between Bruce as a child (encountering bats and watching his parents die) and Bruce as a young man off the rails. Whilst brawling in a jail (somewhere in the shadow of the Himalayas) he is courted by the mysterious Henri Ducard, played by Liam Neeson. Come with me, he says, and I'll sort you out. I'll find an outlet for your rage and guilt. Bruce agrees and heads off to Ducard's mountain retreat where the sorting out basically means lots of fighting and a fair bit of pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

 

After a rather large difference of opinion on how to punish wrongdoers – Bruce baulks at decapitating a murderer – he is back in Gotham, determined to put his newfound skills to good effect. In particular he wants to go after Carmine Falcone, played by Tom Wilkinson, the crime lord and drug dealer who effectively runs the city. This scene setting is unfortunately rather ponderous, mixing ropey dialogue with some terrible acting. In fact, though this is hard to believe, Tom Wilkinson puts in a terrible performance – he seems to have based his accent on Vic Reeves' policeman The American Eagle in Catterick. All the time he spoke I was expecting him to finish his sentence with 'Ma Gawd!' Fortunately, once the background is dealt with and the film hits its stride, it improves a great deal.

 

The transformation of Bruce Wayne into the caped crusader is efficiently dealt with. He is helped out by faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and by Lucius Fox, an underused weapons expert at Wayne Industries, played by Morgan Freeman. And just to put your mind at rest, we aren't treated to one of Morgan's voiceovers in this film. Caine and Freeman are content to coast along on their natural charm and we are happy to let them. More problematic is the love interest – Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, childhood sweetheart of Bruce and now a crusader herself, only she works for the D.A.'s office. She's earnest and decent and ultimately rather dull. Holmes' has little opportunity to create any kind of sexual tension with Bale's Batman. Indeed, the only sign of any arousal occurs when Dawes is unconscious and lying on a stone slab in the batcave. Although I suspect the actual reason for this is that the batcave lacks central heating.

 

The cast is fleshed out by Gary Oldman as decent copper Jim Gordon and Cillian Murphy as the creepy Dr. Jonathan Crane. Oldman wonders through the film looking a little distraught: all that scenery and no opportunity to chomp through it. Of course there are villains other than Wilkinson's crime boss but it would be remiss of me to tell you more about those. Suffice it to say that the evil plan Batman must foil is absolutely preposterous and makes, so far as I can see, no real sense at all. Which is a bit more like it. And that leaves us to consider Batman himself, played by Christian Bale.

 

Bale is a very fine actor and a very dedicated one too. He'll bulk up (American Psycho) or lose lots of weight (The Machinist) if the part demands it. In fact it is almost as though he seeks such parts out. It leaves one to wonder just who Christian Bale is. From the parts he chooses it would be easy to assume that there is something cold and anonymous about Bale. Indeed, whenever he smiles on film it seems to be something he has had to teach himself to do. I suspect he will never quite master it. All of which means that he was a smart choice for an avenging, psychologically scarred multimillionaire, with a penchant for dressing up in weird bondage gear.

 

The only real problem with his performance is the growl he affects as Batman. It is faintly ludicrous and should be dropped. He glowers appropriately and scowls when necessary. Of course, there is something joyless about playing Batman. In the original Batman, Michael Keaton had to watch Jack Nicholson steal every scene. Resulting films continued to pit Batman against flamboyant and camp characters such as Jim Carrey's The Joker. The last two even introduced Robin and Batgirl (or Buttgirl as she was called by some: Alicia Silverstone broke the Hollywood rule of appearing to weigh over eight stone). All Batman got to do was look gloomy as these cartoon characters danced around the screen causing mayhem. As this is the first film in the new series it is Batman's and his alone; I suspect that if Nolan writes and directs the next one he will do something about the imbalance of earlier films.

 

With regards to Nolan's work on the film, as both co-writer and director, it is clear that he knew what he wanted. A single moment in the film made it apparent that Nolan (with tongue tucked firmly in cheek) was working within the boundaries of the genre, and fully enjoying it too. During the big car chase a bystander, witnessing the Batcar fly past, checks to see what he is drinking. This device, if one can call it that, is as old as the hills. Hell, they did it three times in Roger Moore's Bond days – once when he emerged from the sea in the Lotus, once when his gondola left Venice's canals and scooted around St. Marks Square and once when a bystander witnessed him wearing a safari suit for the first time.

 

Nolan, a Bond fan I believe, clearly knows that for Batman to be a success it must be a mass market film and must play by certain rules. By packing out the cast with great talent (Rutger Hauer is rather wasted in his small role but it is still good to have him on screen), and by not treating the audience as idiots Nolan manages to have the best of both worlds. Quality entertainment is a tricky thing to pull off. Graham Greene's 'entertainments' such as Our Man in Havana and The Third Man are supposedly inferior to his 'proper' novels such as The Power and the Glory.

 

But I know which I'd rather read. As Kingsley Amis pointed out, quality 'genre' books are often better (or more satisfying, if you are the sort of person that gets worked up over the idea that some things are better than others) than 'literary' novels. Creating quality entertainment means working within certain boundaries to make it the mass-market success it has to be. It also means understanding the genre you are working within and it also means respecting it – this  was where Schumacher fell down. Nolan has understood all of this and the result is a flawed but enjoyable romp.

 

Words: Chris Dawson.