Someone's done Batman right. Two someone's in fact: Director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale. This is how Batman is supposed to be, how those of us who fell in love with the concept of a certain "Dark Knight" have always known Batman could be. I'll warn those of you reading this now: If you are (or were) a fan of the TV Batman, or even the semi-campy Burton-era Batmans (be they Keaton, Kilmer, or Clooney), this is not even remotely the same. This is a film about passion, about fear, about regret, about vengeance, and the quest for self.
This film chronicles how Batman became Batman. A true origin story. But it's not just about how his past made him who he is, but about how the past can sneak up and haunt you when you least expect it, how compassion can be made to seem like weakness, and how footing is everything. We see Bruce Wayne, both as a child and as a young adult. We see how the bat became a symbol to him, and how that symbol changes him as well as its meaning to him. We see his relationship with Alfred, with Jim Gordon, and with a couple new characters as well. We also see him in his first real fight to save the people of Gotham, a city that has never looked more beautiful, and at the same time, more sinister and unforgiving. This film is about a journey, and we as audience members get to take it with him.
Christian Bale, whom I profess never having been cognizant of before, may just be the perfect Batman/Bruce Wayne, or near enough to satisfy most critics of the films/comics. He has the darkness inside him this role, although I don't know if that's an actor or a person finding a part that echoes his personality. Either way, it is a compelling performance. Where Bale falls flat is in the requisite "ironic/humorous" quips that Batman is supposed to make. Given the timbre of Bale's performance, those throwaway lines seem out of place, and are immersion enders during the film, but you can soon dive back in.
Sir Michael Caine is wonderful as Alfred, the faithful butler, first to Wayne Sr., then to Wayne Jr. throughout the film. His humor, unlike Bales, is welcome, fitting, and enjoyable. Then there is the surprise of the movie... Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. I kept myself away from as much publicity regarding this film as I could, so his appearance in this role was a surprise, although I wasn't certain if it would be pleasant at first. Having seen Oldman in so many different roles, I was afraid he would just blend into the background of the film in what is normally a rather bland role. But compared to the over-acted Neil Hamilton in the TV series, and the blustering, over-important Pat Hingle in the Burton-era films, Oldman portrays Gordon as the last of the truly good cops, just a sergeant in the film, trying not to get swept in to the corruption that is drowning Gotham. His reticence to accept this masked "hero" as trustworthy lets the audience wonder along with him, for we are unsure what the difference between a masked vigilante and Batman is, at least until the end of the film.
Three other actors bring the film its emotional balance points. The dark end is peopled by Ken Watanabe's "Ra's Al Ghul." You've seen traditional villains, you've seen psychotics bent on destruction of one sort or another, but seldom have we been given a "villain" who is so dedicated to the betterment of mankind as a whole, even though his methods are something very, very few could actually support. Even though he is only in a portion of the film, the essence and philosophy of his character are felt throughout. The neutral ground of the moral balance is Ducard, played by Liam Neeson. He is Wayne's mentor, the one who teaches him about the power of fear, and how to overcome that power so that it may be used. Neeson seems to be getting more and more of these mentor-roles, and this one takes a traditional Shyamalanian path. On the morally "light" end of the scale is Morgan Freeman, who plays Dr. Lucius Fox, R&D expert for Wayne Enterprise. He becomes a second mentor to young Bruce, although deliberately left out of the "secret," something I'm very grateful for. Freeman is wonderful, as always, and brings one of only two genuinely warm characters to the screen in the film.
Two other actors who merit mentions have smaller roles, one due to time on-screen, and one due to any worth other than eye-candy. The first is an old favorite, Rutger Hauer, who plays Mr. Earle, the person chosen to run Wayne Enterprises when young Bruce is thought dead. He's not on-screen much, but he's very good during his time on-screen. He's a nebulous character, morally, leaving the way open for him to be either a recurring villain-type, or just a fun memory. The afore-mentioned eye-candy is Katie Holmes, who is generally just fluff, put there to be ogled by Bruce and the audience. She has no real point in the plot, other than to be a reason why Bruce must hide his identity, to "protect those he cares about." She is truly incidental, and the film would have been just as good with any other young Hollywood starlet in her role, so little impact did it actually have on the storyline.
Now we get to the heart of the matter: the director. I have seen Memento, and it was a truly fascinating film. Christopher Nolan has embraced non-linear filmmaking, and in that embrace has mastered its art. While most of Hollywood seems to be steering clear of flashbacks, Nolan uses them throughout, and well. He shows us events, then uses the flashbacks to establish why the events we've just seen are important or noteworthy. The style that flows through this film from him helps it achieve its raw, dark, hungry nature, without being too dark. This is a film you'll leave smiling, not brooding, and given how dark it is in parts during, that's a feat in and of itself. And I'll say this: The movie doesn't end with a gratuitous "feel-good" happy-ending-type story, although you will leave smiling, and with hopes of a sequel.
The cinematography and special effects in the film are top-notch, although in several of the fight scenes, the cuts are so quick it's near-to-impossible to tell who's doing what, it's all more of just a blur of motion, but you figure it out quickly enough. The special effects are very good, near seamless, but there were a couple "Oh, that's CGI" moments to once again jerk you out of the movie immersion.
The soundtrack was one of the best I've heard in a long while, and I was very impressed with whoever wrote it until the credits rolled, and I realized that they'd teamed two very good composers to create the score: Hans Zimmer (Gladiator) and James Newton Howard (Sixth Sense). Then it all became clear. The music is a combination of eastern and western theme and instrumentation, as well as incorporating sound effects right into the score, something not usually done in A-List theatrical releases. Very stirring, with striking but not overly-dominant percussion keeping the motion of the music going in the appropriate places.
All in all, this film was good where it needed to be, and mediocre in the places where it didn't much matter. I give it an A-, and heartily encourage comic fans to seek this film out. This makes two movies I've seen this year that impressed me greatly. The other was a sneak preview of Joss Whedon's Serenity, but that gets its own review later. So go see how Batman began, and revel in the darkness for a while, the darkness that has its own hope, goal, and resolve.