Taking a cue from Sam Raimi's wildly successful "Spider-Man"movies, writer David S. Goyer ("Blade"and its sequels) and co-writer/director ("Memento,""Insomnia")delve deeply into Bruce Wayne's psyche in "Batman Begins," afresh reboot for the fallen superhero franchise.
Returning to the dark roots of the character, half themovie takes place before the stoic young billionaire even dons the now-bulletproofBatsuit, which Wayne eventually fashions from experimental body-armor builtby Wayne Industries, the war-profiteering conglomerate once owned by hismore altruistic late father.
Played with portentous, anguished magnetism by ChristianBale ("TheMachinist," "AmericanPsycho"), and still haunted by his parents'murder when he was a child, Wayne begins the film the last place Batmanfans would expect -- lost to the world in a Chinese prison after disappearingfrom a crime-gripped Gotham City. But he is sprung from this hoosegow bya shadowy ninja organization with a noble yet unrelenting master (LiamNeeson), who trains Wayne to channel his anger and defeat opponents withsilent deftness and dexterity in beautifully photographed scenes (thinkswordfights on Tibetan glaciers) that pay homage to traditions of the samuraigenre.
Then a staggering betrayal puts Wayne on a path back toGotham -- a vast industrial metropolis in the throes of a modern Depressionand in the grips of the mafia -- with a determination to "turn fearon those who prey on the fearful." Bale and Nolan make their Batmanalmost like a slasher-movie stalker in the eyes of the city's villains,and you feel their panic as he attacks from the shadows or strings a thugupside-down off the edge of a building to interrogate him for informationin a chillingly gravelly voice.
Yet this Batman is refreshingly grounded in something resemblingreality. His suit, tank-like Batmobile and other gadgets are all WayneIndustries' military prototypes (introduced by their caretaker Lucius Fox,played by Morgan Freeman). His wing-like cape is designed to work likea parachute for base-jumping. The Batcave beneath Wayne Manor is a cavernsystem once used by his anti-slavery ancestors as part of the UndergroundRailroad, we're told by Alfred the butler (Michael Caine), who raised theorphaned Bruce.
Even the villains are less cartoony than in any other superheromovie to date. While certainly frightening, the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphyfrom "28Days Later") -- who is ostensibly the mastermindbehind a complex plot for the near-Biblical destruction of Gotham -- isjust a psychotic shrink who wears a torn-up gunny sack over his head tohelp enhance the effects of a psychotropic hallucinogen, which he usesto bring out the worst horrors of his victims' minds. (Facing one's fearsis an underlying theme throughout the picture.)
Unfortunately, the pragmatic reinvention in "BatmanBegins" is countered by several equally pedestrian blunders that holdthe film back as if Nolan and Goyer were standing on the back of Batman'scape. The fight scenes are plagued by fashionable chop-edited close-ups,so it's impossible to discern what's going on until Batman is left standingover the groaning forms of defeated bad guys. Other times, near-armiesof antagonists conveniently disappear from the script to ease a character'sescape from danger.
While Goyer's writing is generally potent and contemplative,there are moments of conspicuously clumsy exposition, and the flashbacksof Bruce's father (Linus Roache) so overplay the man's saintliness theyrun the risk of unintentional laughs. While Nolan revels in the brooding,serious side of Batman, he sometimes succumbs awkwardly to action-moviesilliness (for some incredibly inefficient reason Batman has to lie onhis stomach in the Batmobile to fire its weapons -- while still driving).
And while Bruce Wayne's journey toward hero-dom providesthe movie a strong psychological through-line, an emotional cheat is offeredup in the form of a standard-issue former childhood sweetheart (Katie Holmes)who becomes a standard-issue damsel in distress.
But where "Batman Begins" fails its serious sidethe most is in its epilogue that virtually ignores the extensive consequencesand aftermath of its literally Gotham-engulfing climax. Nolan wants tohave it both ways -- he wants his film to be dark, but not so dark as todiscourage cheers from summer moviegoers when the credits roll. The resultis a mixed tone that keeps this rebirth of Batman from fulfilling its potentialgreatness.