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"Batman Begins" review: Nolan boldly revisits the Dark Knight's origin story

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Batman Begins

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If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.

Director Christopher Nolan’s 2005 comic book adaptation “Batman Begins” is essentially the “origins” installment of the Dark Knight saga. It does to the Caped Crusader what Richard Donner’s "Superman: The Movie" did for the Man of Steel in 1978.

Starring Christian Bale (“Empire of the Sun,” “Terminator Salvation”) in the dual role of billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman, Nolan’s reimagining of the beginning of the Dark Knight saga borrows heavily from Bob Kane’s original 1930s comic book story and Frank Miller’s 1980s graphic novels.

The movie, co-written by Nolan and David S. Goyer (“Dark City,” “Blade’) begins with a flashback that takes the viewer back to when Bruce Wayne was eight years old and living in Wayne Manor with his parents Thomas (Linus Roache) and Martha (Sara Stewart).

While playing with his friend Rachel Dawes, Bruce falls into a well and not only breaks his arm, but he frightens a colony of bats that lives within. The bats, naturally, instinctively flutter all around Bruce in self-defense, but the boy (played excellently by Gus Lewis) thinks they’re attacking him and develops a deep-seated phobia to the leathery-winged mammals.

But instead of showing the viewer a straight narrative in chronological order, the first act of “Batman Begins” eases smoothly back and forth over the next two decades in Bruce Wayne’s life, focusing on his agonizing search for justice and enlightenment after his parents’ senseless murder by a small-time street hood named Joe Chill (Richard Brake).

Bruce blames himself for his parents’ death – his fear of bats caused him to ask Thomas and Martha to leave a performance of The Bat at the Gotham City Opera early, thus placing them in Chill’s path in the alley outside – and seeks to avenge it somehow, someday.

But after Bruce graduates from university some years later, his plans for personal revenge go south, big time. After Chill is released from prison at a parole hearing, the two-bit street thug is shot by an assassin hired by Gotham City mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), a man Bruce loathes as a corruptor of the city his father helped to rebuild after an economic depression and one of the “true powers” in the city’s criminal community.

Bruce travels throughout the world incognito, leaving behind Wayne Manor, Wayne Enterprises, his guardian/butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and his now grown up friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). He wants to delve into the criminal mindset to better combat it, so in his trek he commits petty acts of theft and gets himself thrown into prison in various countries, including China.

That’s where Bruce meets with Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a mysterious figure who approaches him in a Chinese prison. Ducard apparently knows a great deal about young Wayne and impressed by his fighting skills, and ends up trying to recruit him into a secret ninja-like group known as the League of Shadows.

Ducard introduces Bruce to the League’s leader, Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and trains him as a warrior against crime, which Ducard believes must be fought ruthlessly.

But once Bruce is skilled enough to stand toe-to-toe with his mentor, he decides that the League of Shadows is not for him when he’s asked to execute a prisoner. Not only that, he balks even more strongly when Ra’s and Ducard tell him why he was really trained, which leads to an extremely violent and deadly falling out between young Wayne and his former mentors.

The rest of “Batman Begins” focuses on Bruce’s return to Gotham City, where he not only rejoins Wayne Enterprises and creates an image of a self-indulgent playboy, but he starts the process of becoming the crime fighter known as the Batman.

Henri Ducard: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.
Bruce Wayne: That's why it's so important. It separates us from them.

"Batman Begins" uses wit and style to set up a trilogy featuring one of the best-known icons of American pop culture. It introduces Batman’s network of allies, including tech whiz Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Sgt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and his loyal butler/father figure, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) Of course, Batman’s arsenal of weapons, vehicles and the iconic Batsuit is here, too, reimagined by the film’s designers with a more real-world feel than those in previous movie and TV incarnations.

Alfred Pennyworth: Are you coming back to Gotham for long, sir?
Bruce Wayne: As long as it takes. I'm gonna show the people of Gotham their city doesn't belong to the criminals and the corrupt.
Alfred Pennyworth: In the depression, your father nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combating poverty. He believed that his example could inspire the wealthy of Gotham to save their city.
Bruce Wayne: Did it?
Alfred Pennyworth: In a way. Their murder shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action.
Bruce Wayne: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol... as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.
Alfred Pennyworth: What symbol?
Bruce Wayne: Something elemental, something terrifying.
Alfred Pennyworth: I assume that as you're taking on the underworld, this symbol is a persona to protect those you care about from reprisals.
Bruce Wayne: You're thinking about Rachel?
Alfred Pennyworth: Actually, sir, I was thinking of myself.

Just as important as Batman and his friends in law enforcement are, so are the villains of "Batman Begins." Not only does Bruce Wayne have to contend with thugs, drug dealers and gangsters such as Falcone, but he also has to deal with the crafty Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who uses his position as a staff member of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum to perform mind-bending experiments with drugs. Crane, who terrorizes the city as arch-villain Scarecrow, is unctuous and ruthless.

Nolan’s Masterpiece

Considering how low the Batman film franchise had fallen because of the garish style-over-story approach of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, it is good to see that Nolan decided to give viewers a well-written “origins of” film. "Batman Begins" not only explains the psychological and emotional underpinnings of the Bruce Wayne/Batman duality, but Nolan gives Batman’s world more of a real world feel.

In some ways, "Batman Begins" harkens back to DC Comics' other film franchise starter, "Superman: The Movie." Nolan and Goyer followed Richard Donner’s lead by casting talented A-list actors such as Bales, Caine, Freeman, Goldman (playing a good guy, for a change) and Neeson. They also decided to make Gotham City more realistic by shooting parts of it on location in Chicago as well as in sound stages in London.

In addition, everything that Batman uses in his war on crime takes its cues from real-life military applications, and the stuff has a prototype look to it as well.

The verisimilitude approach Donner used in "Superman" is also evident in the approach Nolan uses in "Batman Begins." Yes, the screenplay is full of witty bon mots and memorable verbal duels, but never do the actors camp it up in a hammy fashion. The viewer is sucked in to the story from the minute those bats fly across that red sky and form the Batman logo all the way to the end credits.

Blu-ray Extras:

In-Movie Experience: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, and others reveal the movie's backstory as you watch

The Dark Knight IMAX Prologue (in high definition)

Tankman Begins: A Batman Begins spoof

Batman: The Journey Begins: Concept, design, and development of the film as well as the casting of Batman himself

Shaping Mind and Body: Observe Christian Bale's transformation into Batman

Gotham City Rises: Witness the creation of Gotham City the Batcave, Wayne Manor, and more

Cape and Cowl: The development of the new Batsuit

Batman: The Tumbler: The reinvention of the Batmobile

Path to Discovery: A look at the first week filming on rugged and remote Iceland locations

Saving Gotham City: The development of miniatures, CGI, and effects for the Monorail chase scene

Genesis of the Bat: A look at the Dark Knight's incarnation and influences on the film

Reflections on Writing Batman Begins: with David S. Goyer

Digital Batman: The effects you might have missed

Batman Begins Stunts: Confidential Files: Discover facts and story points not in the film

Stills gallery

Theatrical trailer

Blu-ray Specifications

Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Blu-ray, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen

Language: Portuguese (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby TrueHD 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1), Japanese (Dolby Digital 5.1), Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1)

Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese

Dubbed: French, Spanish

Region: Region A/1

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)

Studio: Warner Home Video

DVD Release Date: July 8, 2008

Run Time: 140 minutes

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