I've been trying to write these two reviews for about a month now. Quite honestly, I have too much to say about each one, so I'm hoping to deal with them here in brief. If I ever edit down the huge versions, I'll just come back and post links.
In any serialized fiction--mainly I'm talking comic books and TV shows here--eventually, continuity will take on a life of its own. You look at a classic comic book, like Batman or Spider-man, and if you looked at the characters' whole history, you'd see forty or more years of different writers and artists--each with different skill levels and talents--interpreting and reinterpreting the character. Eventually, what you get is a great big, self-contradictory mess. One writer sees Batman as Sherlock Holmes in a mask, so everything plays out like an episode of CSI, with Batman spending half his time in the Bat-Lab. Another sees him as a wisecracking James Bond type, complete with smirky one-liners and gadgets in his utility belt. Another views him as a big, brooding thug, who'd never crack a smile--Harry Callahan in tights. Yet another is into Eastern philosophy, and re-makes the Caped Crusader into a serene martial artist, "y'know, like Cane, in Kung Fu."
The makers of Batman Begins had been dealt a bad hand, continuity-wise. Their movie followed a series of four Batman movies that started well (with Tim Burton's original Batman, in 1989) but progressively got campier and more unrealistic in each iteration, until the last movie (1997's Batman & Robin) may well have been the suckiest suck that ever did suck. Maybe the worst part about this four-movie series (aside from the suckiness of the last movie) was that Batman was a bit player in the movies that bore his name. This was probably a legacy from the first film, where Jack Nicholson as the Joker both took top credit and stole the show from Michael Keaton's Batman. Those Batman movies were ensemble pieces, and each time out the ensemble got bigger.
Facing this continuity and these flaws, the makers of Batman Begins did the smartest thing they could--they blew up the series. Those four movies, along with the 1960's movie based on the Batman TV show, are relegated to the world of "Let's Pretend that Never Happened."
So now it's left for yet another crew to tell the story of Batman's origin, the story of a rich young boy whose parents are murdered in a mugging, and who grows up to fight crime in a nifty cape-and-mask combo. Learning from the mistakes of the just-eradicated film series, they make two important decisions: they make Batman (Christian Bale) the center of the story, the character from whose perspective you see 90% of the movie, and they make this movie as realistic as possible--as realistic as you can get when you're talking about ninjas and crimefighting billionaires who dress up like bats.
It takes some good acting to carry this kind of suspension of disbelief off, and Begins does marvelously on that score. Bale's got the kind of range you need for this role: he's a powerful enough actor that you can really believe in him as a predator, yet he's also able to show the child-like vulnerability of a victim. He's paired up with a gang of skilled actors who are comfortable in their supporting roles--Liam Neeson is now permanently typecast as the father figure of the knight-errant; Gary Oldman is excellent in a rare non-crazy role as the not-yet-Commissioner Gordon; and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman each could have mailed in their roles, but were simply too professional to do so.
In a slightly flashier role, Cillian Murphy (who I couldn't recognize from his starring turn in 28 Days Later) is a revelation as a shrink whose grip on reality might not be all that tight. Even Katie Holmes, who's become a human pinata for her co-starring role in "The Madness of Tom Cruise" is solid, in a role that admittedly doesn't require all that much from her.
Together, these folks give Batman Begins an air that's closer to a horror movie than an action-adventure. Director Christoper Nolan obliges, by shooting a lot of the film in close-up. That's been criticized, as (much more properly) has been a car chase that goes on far too long. Those looking for other nits to pick will probably hone in on the superweapon at the end of the film. If you think about the physics of that twice, you've thought about it one too many times.
But all those things are overshadowed by a summer blockbuster that shows some brains, as well as hints of a soul. Just the fact that finally, someone attempted to explain why Batman just happens to live in the city that has the highest per-capita loony rate in the universe, is worth the price of admission. Highly recommend.
Next review: George Lucas with the Lid Off...