*Batman Begins (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Tinseltown
Batman Begins commences with a dream. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), sequestered in an unnamed Asian prison, dreams of the day when, as a child, he fell into an abandoned well on the Wayne family's enormous estate and was swarmed by thousands of bats -- the origin of his primal terror, aroused and cemented by the deaths of his parents shortly thereafter at the hands of a Depression-era robber.
Despite countless riches and the wise counsel of his beloved manservant Alfred -- played here with understated devotion by the incomparable Michael Caine -- young Bruce is destined for a lifetime of soul searching (was he the cause of his parents' untimely death?), unresolved anger and fear.
This is the background for director Christopher Nolan's remarkable re-invention of the Batman franchise, rescued from the campy influences of the '60s television series and the various movie incarnations of the last two decades. Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), who knows his Batman, borrows from the Depression-era origins of the comic book superhero but relies more on the late '80s rebirth of the Dark Knight by Frank Miller, who created Sin City for DC Comics.
Batman, as envisioned by Miller and re-envisioned by Nolan, has demons to wrestle.
His marathon struggle begins in a high Himalayan outpost, where a mysterious figure named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) trains Bruce in the ways of the warrior, challenging him to "devote [himself] to an ideal" in order to "become a legend." Bruce is invited into the League of Shadows, a centuries-old crime-fighting ring determined to destroy Gotham City because it has "reached the pinnacle of its decline."
But Bruce rejects the fascist notion that the city cannot be saved. He takes what he has learned and returns, instead, to Wayne Manor, to Alfred and to a greatly deteriorated Gotham.
From here, Nolan skillfully weaves a two-tiered plot. While Bruce carefully constructs Batman, the bad-guy duo of mob leader Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and deranged psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane, also known as The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), is introduced.
A subplot involving Bruce's childhood friend-turned-object of fascination and warrior for justice, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) runs throughout the film, providing far less steam than either of the key plotlines.
We thought we knew Batman and his trappings, the Bat Cave and the Batmobile. But Nolan and Co. offer us exquisite new insight into the worlds of both the absurdly rich and entitled Bruce and his Batman. Bruce's first adult descent into what will become the Bat Cave is a revelatory scene of tremendous beauty and underlying terror, as are many of the following scenes in Gotham's underworld.
Christian Bale's Bruce/Batman is delightfully dark and tortured, his voice a raspy whisper that turns to a low growl when he's pissed off. The supporting performances are uniformly strong, including those of an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, the only good cop in Gotham, and of Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, a veteran inventor buried in the bowels of Wayne Enterprises who helps outfit and equip the newborn Batman.
A set-up for the next film appears near the end -- a cause for rejoicing. Batman Begins isn't just the best film of early summer, or a mere prequel to existing films; it's the beginning of an entirely re-envisioned series that promises to raise the bar of audience interest, challenging viewers to think and feel and follow the stories of their comic book heroes, and not just be titillated by expensive eye candy.
-- Kathryn Eastburn