Batman Begins breaks from tradition by compellingly tracing the motives that lead a brooding billionaire to pick fights dressed as an airborne rodent. Director Christopher Nolan's taut but uneven comic book epic serves not so much as a prequel to the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman movies as a relaunch of the franchise. Batman Begins loses some footing when it tries to be a noisy summer thrill ride, but finds undeniable intensity by exploring the mind behind the mask. Finally, we get a Batman movie in which Batman, not his villains, is the star.
After a prologue with young Bruce Wayne discovering a bat cave on the family estate, the film flashes forward to a Far Eastern prison where two-fisted American expatriate Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) takes unseemly pleasure in whupping his fellow inmates. A sinister benefactor named Ducard (Liam Neeson) secures Wayne's release, and introduces him to an ancient order of vigilantes called the League of Shadows.
Ducard not only teaches Wayne ninja tricks, but provides some tough-love therapy that fills in the backstory. Wayne grew up the fortunate son of wealthy Gotham City philanthropists until a petty thief gunned down his parents. Tormented by guilt, vengeful thoughts and a phobia of bats, Wayne spends years as a global vagabond to understand criminals, then attacks them. "To conquer fear you must become fear!" says Ducard.
After a philosophical falling-out with the League of Shadows (accompanied by requisite explosions), Wayne returns to clean up Gotham City, a cesspool of corruption run by a B-movie crimelord (In the Bedroom's Tom Wilkinson). Enlisting Wayne Industries' resident science guru (Morgan Freeman), Wayne gradually amasses the iconic gizmos - the Bat-themed costume, the utility belt, the Batmobile (now a high-speed, all-terrain tank). As Alfred the Butler, Michael Caine's warm cockney understatement brightens the film's angst.
Bale and Nolan prove a fittingly dynamic duo for taking on the Dark Knight, which here essentially consists of three overlapping roles. In private, tightly wound Wayne struggles to channel his obsessions in a positive direction. In public, Bale makes Wayne a smirking, fatuous playboy, cleverly playing off our memories of the actor's killer yuppie in American Psycho. Batman himself comes across as a ruthless enforcer a la Dirty Harry.
Nolan's reputation mostly rests on the backward structure of Memento, but in that thriller and Insomnia, he proved his skill at turning the screws on driven, morally questionable antiheroes. Early on, Nolan carefully tracks Wayne's inner torments, which find expression in brawls and sword fights, then draws attention to the subtle but infectious delight Wayne takes in creating his new persona and tricking out the bat cave. The director clearly relishes the film's bits of horror-movie suspense: When Batman picks off panicky hoods in darkened warehouses, he's more like Dracula than Adam West.
But when Nolan needs to actually show spectacular conflict, the movie gets away from him. Despite pulse-pounding music and narrative speed, the action scenes tend to be choppily edited muddles. Perhaps Nolan wants to overcompensate for the sluggishness of Burton's design-heavy Batman films by resorting to overlong, overloud car chases and disaster-movie demolition.
Once Wayne embraces his inner bat, puts on the cape and uncovers a plot to destroy Gotham, the film should speed up, but instead it threatens to spin out of control. The villains' evil scheme turns out to be laughably complicated and can't hold up to the slightest scrutiny. Adorably apple-cheeked Katie Holmes plays Wayne's concerned love interest, a crusading district attorney, but the starlet's in way over her head. No matter how smartly Nolan and co-writer David Goyer bring Batman's origins to fruition, you can't ignore how they let other sides of the story go to seed.
Batman Begins' villains come from the comic books' second string, but you can appreciate their thematic relevance. Cillian Murphy plays creepy criminal psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane, who uses a burlap hood and fear-inducing gas to torment his victims as the Scarecrow. Meanwhile, the League of Shadows shares some of Batman's evil-fighting motives, but advocate murder and wholesale destruction in the name of justice.
Batman doesn't technically kill anyone, he just appoints himself the city's guardian and uses terror tactics and psychological torture with minimal concern for public safety or the rule of law. Batman Begins proves just exciting enough for us to say, "I guess that's OK, then."