The truly atrocious Batman and Robin should have ended the Caped Crusader's cinematic career once and for all. But it seems you can't keep a good bat - and its profit potential - down. After eight years, Batman is back in cinemas with Batman Begins, a decidedly straightforward version of the crime-fighter's origins by accomplished director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia).
The film opens with the death of the parents of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), an event that happened in front of him. The trauma leads to an obsession with revenge. When the opportunity to avenge their deaths is snatched from him, Bruce heads to the Far East, where he acquires direction and training with the mysterious League of Shadows, led by Ra's Al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Ducard (Liam Neeson).
Bruce eventually returns to Gotham City, which is now overrun by organized crime bosses like Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and other dangerous individuals manipulating the system, such as psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). Bruce also discovers that Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), a friend of his father, is slowly acquiring control of the family firm, Wayne Industries.
But with the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his ally at the Wayne Enterprises' Applied Sciences division, Bruce sets out to stop the rot and creates his crime-fighting alter ego Batman to save Gotham City.
It may not be the most original film, but the screenplay is extremely well written and structured and the story well developed - a rarity in so many films these days. Nolan and David S Goyer (Blade Trinity) take the time to establish Wayne's character, showing what makes him and the multitude of supporting characters tick, as well as their motivation and the impact of fear, the film's main theme, upon them all.
Nolan displays the same level of care and intelligence in his directing as he does in his screenwriting. After the deliberately paced build-up in the first half, he unleashes a non-stop barrage of action, which includes great fight sequences and a terrific chase through the streets of Gotham, all nicely edited by Lee Smith, handsomely photographed by Wally Pfister and set to a driving score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard. By taking a mature, serious approach to the material, Nolan gives us a world once removed from reality but no less believable because of it.
Bale is excellent as Wayne, perfectly capturing the playboy billionaire's tortured soul along with his need for revenge. I cannot think of another actor working that could have pulled this off as well as he does. He finds excellent support in the performances of Caine, Wilkinson, Neeson, Freeman and Oldman, while Watanabe makes the most of his brief screen time. Murphy, Holmes and Hauer turn in decent, if not spectacular, performances.
With nary a bat suit or rubber-clad nipple in sight, and without the flamboyance of previous outings - including camp Prince soundtrack - Christopher Nolan can claim to have taken Batman back to his roots.