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Wings and a Prayer: Batman (Christian Bale) turns his fears into strengths in 'Batman Begins.'

Cape Fear

Christopher Nolan's 'Batman Begins' takes place on a dark and stormy knight

By Richard von Busack

WHO IS Batman? A silly cartoon adventurer, a brooding revenger or a muscle-bound bruiser? In Batman Begins, the most essaylike of all the Batman movies, director Christopher Nolan really gets under the cowl of the hero.

The critic Edmund Wilson once wrote about how disappointed he was in the endings of Raymond Chandler novels. Detective Philip Marlowe tracks down the murderers and drops the usual finely wrought metaphysical observations. Still, Marlowe never gets his hands on the real culprits, the builders of Los Angeles. (Robert Towne's improvement on the Chandler plot was having the villain of Chinatown be an actual city father—an incestuous one.)

In Batman Begins, the villains aren't neon maniacs like the Joker or Two-Face. Instead, they are the plutocrats and gangsters who run the city. Even they are but pawns for an ancient order called "The League of Shadows" that plans to cleanse Gotham once and for all—a service the league performed by igniting the Fire of London in 1666, and even earlier when they gave Rome to the barbarians.

Unlike previous Gothams, Batman Begins' city displays no Gothic charm. It's a mix of the worst of Philadelphia, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro. Favellas with wooden fire escapes ring pitiless skyscrapers. The infamous Arkham Asylum is a brick public hospital of the 1950s: Bauhaus at its most cruel. Andersonville-sized homeless encampments sprawl under the freeways.

The landmark in Gotham is an elevated train, symbolizing the difference between the city's possibilities and its fate. In the time of Batman, it becomes a graffiti-covered danger, prowled by murderers.

Years earlier, the Wayne family ride it to the city for their last outing together. In these flashbacks, Nolan expertly stages Batman's stations of the cross. Terrified of bats, the boy Bruce Wayne is made queasy by the leather-winged demons in Boito's Mefistofele, the opera his family goes to see. This Faust story is the preview of the devil's bargain Wayne will make when he is a man.

During the first, best hour, director Nolan (Memento) creates a series of sharp contrasts: cutting from a glass conservatory of flowers next to Wayne Manor to a muddy Chinese jail where Bruce Wayne lies imprisoned 20 years later; Batman, dedicated to striking fear in criminals, is juxtaposed with just the right nemesis: a terrorizer named "The Scarecrow" for his rotted burlap mask. (His alter ego is played by the deliciously supercilious Cillian Murphy.)

In the two-sided part of abrasive playboy and masked night prowler, Christian Bale makes the masquerade work as it never has before onscreen. Since he's a beginner, there is more suspense to Batman's early adventures. He's clumsy, slamming into the sides of buildings when he's trying to make an invisible getaway.

He learns fast, though. The most rousing sequence is a raid on a loading dock. Batman swoops between the rows of cargo containers. He is only a flash of black, or the noise of an offscreen scuffle. He picks off gunmen one by one, scaring them blind. Later, using radar, he can summon bats—cyclones of them, like the emptying-out of 1,000 Carlsbad Caverns.

Though the cast is loaded with name actors, there's no showboat acting; the movie keeps its tenebrous, serious tone even when performers as showy as Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine turn up. Gary Oldman has an uncharacteristic part as a hard-ridden plainclothes cop named Gordon. Katie Holmes, with her brimming dark eyes and wry, crooked mouth, plays Wayne's childhood companion, who grows up to be a DA. Holmes makes this the first Batman movie with a heroine rather than a hostage.

Despite Holmes, the movie is short on dashing romance. We get little sign here of Batman's inner Zorro. Moreover, some of the later action sequences look familiar. The grand finale's runaway train sequence is inferior to the Third Avenue El scene in Spider-Man 2. The ending is all the more dissatisfying because it cuts away from a more exciting idea: a Halloweenish battle of hallucinations in a Gotham fogged with the Scarecrow's fear-inducing powders.

Anxious not to be silly, Batman Begins is often grueling, as in the Batmobile chase scene, which is like a jet-powered bulldozer smashing through traffic. After this sequence, butler Alfred (Caine) frets about "Master Wayne" enjoying his adventures too much. What could Alfred mean? In Batman Begins, the caped crusader's mission is brutal hard work.

Still, Batman Begins is truly thrilling and thoughtful cinema. It is admirable for being so clear about its terms, for outlining the circumstances under which a vigilante can be an instrument of justice and for stressing what such a man must not do. Will all this exposition make it boring to some people? I hope not. America is always in danger of succumbing to vigilantes, and we need this lesson about the fine line between justice and mercy.

Batman Begins (PG-13; 140 min.), directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Nolan and David S. Goyer, photographed by Wally Pfister and starring Christian Bale, Katie Holmes and Morgan Freeman, plays valleywide.

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From the June 15-21, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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