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Batman Begins (2005)
Rated PG13

Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and Michael Caine

Rating:
****1/2
out of
*****

As I bought some goodies at the concession stand before seeing Batman Begins, the clerk asked me if I was a fan of the Batman comics or the movies. When I replied "the comics," he asked if that was Frank Miller's version of Batman or before. I said, "Much earlier, like the early 1970s." "Oh," he replied, "when it was campy. When superheroes used oatmeal pies to beat the bad guys." I laughed and said, "Yeah, I guess you're right."

If the next few movies in the series are as good as Batman Begins, the movie characterizations of Batman will be also be divided into two groups: the movies that came before Batman Begins, or "the bad ones," and those including Batman Begins and beyond, or "the good ones."

Batman Begins explains how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) establishes the persona of The Batman. The film begins with Wayne in a Chinese prison, fighting the other prisoners and beating them senseless. He is approached by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who promises Wayne freedom if he will join the League of Shadows, a sort of mystical ninja vigilante group that have been "keeping balance in civilization" for thousands of years. Wayne accepts his offer for training and Ducard teaches him the ways of combat, deception and weaponry.

We learn through flashbacks that Wayne's billionaire parents were gunned down by a thug in an alley, even though Wayne's father attempted to rid Gotham City of crime and poverty. Bruce, blaming himself for the murder, fled Gotham in attempt to learn the ways of the criminal mind so he could understand the forces he would eventually try to tackle to enact revenge for his parents' death. With Ducard's training completed, he eventually returns to Gotham City and creates the Batman character to protect his identity and keep his loved ones safe from harm.

While I'm leaving out a few key plot points, the movie does an admirable job of reinventing the Batman character without making him cartoon-like or campy at all. This Batman is believable and that's the key to the film's success. Although some of the situations might be straight out of the comics, the core of the film -- Batman's motivation and characterization -- are captivating and interesting. Where the other Batman films were either freak-shows or all out camp-fests, this movie is all about doing what needs to be done to save those you hold dear.

Christian Bale deserves a large part of the credit for making this the most successful Batman adaptation to date. His Bruce Wayne is charming, slick and handsome. His Batman is menacing and properly equipped in both gadgets and attitude. Usually, the actor portraying the character is good at one side of the character but not the other. Michael Keaton was OK as Batman but was good, albeit aloof, as Bruce Wayne. George Clooney was an excellent, if less-than-serious, Batman but not very good as Bruce Wayne. I won't even mention Val Kilmer, who wasn't particularly good as either persona.

The impressive supporting cast are also worth noting. Michael Caine is a perfect Alfred, providing just enough comic relief to keep the film from being too dour. Liam Neeson makes a great tutor for the young Bruce Wayne, recalling a bit of his Qui-Gon character from Star Wars: Episode I, but a lot more interesting. It's always good to see Rutger Hauer on-screen and he's given a nice role. The only downer? Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, a D.A. who's a thorn in the side of Gotham's crime lords.

By keeping the focus on Batman, director Christopher Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer, have done what Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher consistently failed to do: make a great Batman movie. While it's a little more psychologically intense than any other comic book film, it's also a heck of a lot more interesting and entertaining than most as well. Batman Begins is more like Batman Reborn. Hallelujah!

Trivia: While shooting on the streets of Chicago, a person accidentally crashed into the Batmobile. The driver was apparently drunk, and said he hit the car in a state of panic, believing the Dark Knight's vehicle to be an invading alien spacecraft. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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