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Review: Welcome return for 'Batman'

Slow start doesn't diminish Caped Crusader's renewed vitality

By Paul Clinton

Batman Begins
The Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) rescues Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) in "Batman Begins."
Christian Bale
Christopher Nolan

(CNN) -- "Batman & Robin," the fourth installment in the Batman franchise, hit theaters with a loud thud in 1997. It was a bad time for the Caped Crusader, whose movies had started out so promisingly. The winged warrior was at least on life-support -- if not downright down and out.

Now Bruce Wayne and his dark alter ego are back in "Batman Begins," with director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") in the driver's seat and a new occupant inside the latex suit, Christian Bale ("American Psycho").

The news is both good and bad.

On the positive side, Nolan wisely has abandoned the slapstick, cartoony tone of the last two "Batman" films directed by Joel Schumacher. Those movies were just big-screen versions of the over-the-top, campy 1960s TV series, and they came close to damaging the careers of George Clooney (who played Batman in "Batman & Robin") and Chris O'Donnell (Robin).

Val Kilmer, who portrayed Batman in 1995's "Batman Forever," has other excuses.

The bad news is that "Batman Begins" initially is a long and boring trek into the dramatic wilderness before finally getting to the good stuff, which is when Bruce puts on his bat ears.

To Nolan's credit, he -- along with co-writer David S. Goyer -- has created a much less cynical film with a smidgen of reality than any of the other "Batman" movies, including the first two from director Tim Burton. After all, Batman is that rare classic comic book character: one with no super powers, a mortal who, through determination, willpower and a bunch of money (and really cool high-tech toys), overcomes the odds to conquer evil. He seems like a real person.

As the title implies, "Batman Begins" is a prequel to the existing series, explaining the origins of how the mild-mannered billionaire is transformed into Gotham City's crime-fighting Dark Knight. In the beginning, he's a child (Gus Lewis) with an idyllic life on a fabulous estate of his enormously wealthy parents. His only friend is Rachel Dawes (played by Emma Lockhart, who grows up to be Katie Holmes), the housekeeper's daughter.

Bruce's altruistic father, Dr. Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache), is using the success of Wayne Enterprises to fight crime, corruption and poverty in Gotham City nearly single-handedly. But he can't save himself: After a night at the opera, he and his wife are gunned down in front of Bruce during a botched robbery.

With only his family's trusted butler, Alfred (Michael Caine, showing a nice light touch), by his side, Bruce retreats into grief and guilt. As soon as he's able, he flees Gotham and begins to travel the world in secret seeking ways to fight injustice and protect the victims of fear. It isn't the most common lifestyle for a wealthy heir, but what the heck?

At this point, "Batman Begins" loses focus and takes a left turn into "Kung Fu" land. Bruce is rescued from a Far East prison by a mysterious stranger named Ducard (Liam Neeson), who instructs him in self-defense as the film devolves into gobbledygook involving a vigilante ninja gang called the League of Shadows.

After discovering the sinister goals of the league, Bruce calls for his private jet and returns to Gotham. If you're muttering, "Say what?" you're not alone -- he has been missing for years, and now in the middle of nowhere, he summons his own plane!

Fun begins back in Gotham City

Fortunately, the film finds its footing again upon Bruce's return to Gotham, a metropolis that has degenerated further into a cesspool of crime.

The only good guys seem to be his childhood friend Rachel (Holmes), now a young district attorney; one honest cop, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, playing against type); the ever-loyal Alfred; and Lucius (Morgan Freeman), a Wayne Enterprises high-tech expert.

Lucius is "Batman's" version of James Bond's Q, and some of the toys he produces are fairly impressive, particularly the substantial new Batmobile. True to the Batman story, to everyone except Alfred, Bruce is a spoiled playboy unfazed by Gotham's problems.

Now the fun finally starts, complete with action, humor and some nice chemistry between Rachel and Batman. The criminals, including Tom Wilkinson as a crime kingpin and Cillian Murphy as a strange psychiatrist, start emerging from the shadows, along with Neeson's character.

Sure, the plot is thin, and it's a little too pat when Neeson's character is stuffed backed into the story with a plan to destroy Gotham. But Bale, in his first venture into superhero status, hits just the right balance between Bruce's uncertainty and the intensity of his alter ego. Besides, Caine and Freeman elevate any project in which they appear.

"Batman Begins" -- if you can forgive the slow beginning (and that lame pun) -- is decent escapist entertainment. Naturally, the film's conclusion is a blatant setup for another return to the Batcave.

While I'm not counting the days until the expected sequel hits theaters, I'm not dreading it either.

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