Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman
I have a confession to make. I never saw Memento. I know it got splendid reviews and achieved wonders with the non-linear narrative structure beloved of directors like Tarantino, but I just never got round to it. And when I saw the trailers for Batman Begins, my heart sank. The early focus on lots of stuff blowing up, special effects of one sort or another, and Liam Neeson in full Jedi Master mode teaching the young Master Bruce Wayne how to fight crime - well, I wasn't expecting a lot from this movie.
Just goes to show how wrong you can be, doesn't it? This is by far the best Batman movie. Ever.
Where to start? The cast are exceptional. Morgan Freeman needs to patent that twinkle in his eye, and as the prime agent in supporting Batman's burgeoning career he's not played as the absent minded scientist who never figures out what uses his inventions are being put to, oh no. He has Bruce Wayne pegged very quickly and he knows exactly who he's dealing with and what he's getting into. I was expecting Michael Caine to be in full-on English duffer mode playing Alfred, but instead he puts in a sensitive, well-judged performance. Christian Bale is very, very good as Batman. His character starts off looking like he did in Reign of Fire, but after the necessary back story is established and he returns to Gotham, he plays Wayne like he might be featured in the pages of any celebrity gossip column - and the idea is perfect. How else would billionaire Bruce Wayne put people off the scent but by being a complete asshole in public? It's perfect! The idea goes so completely against the Adam West era Bruce Wayne (the philanthropic nice guy who would help old ladies across the street) that I was chuckling with glee. Cillian Murphy plays the nefarious Doctor Crane to a T and he had me hating him on sight. It was a shame the Scarecrow didn't get more screen time. Rutger Hauer is decisively back on form as the boss of Wayne Enterprises, and after languishing in the direct-to-video doldrums for so long it's about time he got a few more juicy A-movie roles. And finally, Gary Oldman is stunning as Jim Gordon - it's the best performance I've seen from him in years, and he's perfectly cast.
The film looks wonderful, too. That Batmobile will go down in history as one of the coolest vehicles ever committed to celluloid. And it was made in Britain, I'll have you know. The Batcave becomes a relic of the underground railroad - the secret route used to smuggle slaves from the South to freedom in the North, created by an earlier generation of the Wayne family. Instantly the Wayne myth feels grounded, rooted in reality. The Waynes have been helping the oppressed for generations; Batman is just the latest expression of that help. And the Batcave isn't some ludicrous Ken Adam James Bond fantasy. There's no atomic batteries to power here, just bats and slime, totally believable. Gotham, too, feels real - it's not the Anton Furst Gothic extravagance of Tim Burton's Batman. Instead the helicopter shots of the city look like news footage. Indeed, one bat-chase is reported on TV, as of course it would be.
But the strongest reason why I love the film is the way it presents its hero in action. Batman's fights are claustrophobic, confusing, and vague. They're the complete antithesis of the Hong Kong wire-style kung fu that everyone seems to have felt is necessary in just about every action post-Matrix movie. Here, Batman is something nasty that happens to the bad guys, and whatever it is, it happens in the dark. We're not quite sure what it is, but we know it hurts. This Batman is a fleeting shape, padding feet, a flapping cape; this Batman is the promise of pain and retribution to those who deserve it. The focus is on the dread as it builds, and on the aftermath as it is revealed as a groaning pile of severely chastised ne'er-do-wells. Forget Neo with his "I know kung fu." This is what going up against a Ninja would really be like: don't expect to see anything until it's all over. As Liam Neeson's character says several times, it's all about fear. Nolan should be applauded for leaving the generation of that fear to the audience's imagination.
If you haven't seen the film, you should see it on the big screen. It's a tremendous experience, and the best film I've seen all year. Considering I was fully expecting to be saying that about Sin City this weekend, that's quite a compliment. Comparing the two films brings home the fact that while they're both derived from comic book sources, Batman Begins has made the leap to full three dimensional plots and characters, and Sin City hasn't. Not yet, anyway.
There are sequels to both films in production at the moment, and I know which one I'm looking forwards to the most, especially with a set-up like we get at the end of Batman Begins (and no, I'm not going to tell you what it is - go see for yourself.)
Meanwhile, I think I need to track down a copy of Memento on DVD and see what else I've missed.
Chris's rating: Five Stars