Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" needn't be perfect to erase the rubbery aftertaste of "Batman and Robin," the Joel Schumacher-directed dud that led the franchise into an eight-year deep freeze. After suffering through Schumacher's recklessly campy aesthetic — nippled Batsuits and so forth — fans are bound to rejoice in anything that takes itself halfway seriously.
This is fortunate, because "Batman Begins" isn't perfect. Though vested with a magnetic leading man, radical new gadgets and a fresh emphasis on emotional realism, Nolan's film also blunders into a few momentum-killing dead spots — enough to make it lag behind "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" among the decade's defining superhero movies.
Nolan — fresh from the battered psyches and disconnected identities of "Memento" and "Insomnia — has essentially torn down the old "Batman" franchise and rebuilt it from scratch. Consequently, we find a young, pre-cowled Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale from "American Psycho") playing the prodigal son, wandering around Asia, cavorting with lowlifes, searching for a way to harness the rage and guilt that have reached critical mass since his parents were gunned down in front of his eyes as a child.
While serving time in a hard-scrabble Bhutanese prison, Wayne attracts the notice of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, in the sort of sage-master role that has become his specialty), right-hand man to Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai"), leader of a monastic terrorist cult sequestered high in the Himalayas. After conducting a snowbound, Grasshoppah-like pilgrimmage to the top of a mountain, Wayne becomes pupil to Ducard, who promises to teach the younger man how to instill fear in his enemies and "unbury his guilt."
Mostly, this seems to involve a brutal "Fight Club"-style regimen of beatings and one-sided sparring matches, but eventually Wayne holds his own. With this sequence, Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer ("Blade") effectively trace the origins of the Dark Knight — his tactical prowess, his penchant for theatrics and his fear-infused persona — and it's nothing less than completely riveting. Fans have speculated that "Batman Begins" is based heavily on Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" graphic novel, but it is, on the whole, an original product.
After a violent parting of ways with Ra's Al Ghul and his crew — who take their crime-stopping philosophy to fascist extremes — Wayne returns home to claim his fortune and save Gotham from a criminal epidemic. In making Batman — at first, just a vague vigilante notion — come to fruition, Wayne confides in his family's trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and recruits a Wayne Enterprises research-and-development man (Morgan Freeman) to furtively pass along some of the company's most high-tech creations, including a battle-buggy that looks like a cross between a Lamborghini and a Hummer (meet your new Batmobile) and a Kevlar, fire-retardant battle vest (no nipples, thank you very much).
With his new outfit and implements, Wayne/Batman goes to work instilling fear in Gotham's underworld, but finds the tables turned when scientist-gone-bad Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy from "28 Days Later") unleashes a fear-producing hallucinogen as a potato-sack-wearing alter ego known as The Scarecrow. Along the way, Wayne — playing the role of a spoiled, skirt-chasing scion — leaps into action to save childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes from TV's "Dawson's Creek"), now an assistant D.A. looking to bring down the city criminal godfather (Tom Wilkinson from "In the Bedroom").
"Batman Begins" is choc-a-bloc with marvelous stuntwork and special effects (Gotham, the movie's one digital creation, looks like New York on Andro) and features an intense, gritty performance from Bale (despite his two-packs-a-day Batman voice). Still, the film dramatically over-reaches at times, conjuring moral complexity when none is needed (for instance, when Alfred admonishes Wayne for a high-speed highway chase) and the action sometimes feels flat, like you're watching it through a bubble. Suffice to say, the supporting cast is fantastic, including Gary Oldman as a younger version of Chief Inspector Sgt. Gordon (the one revisionist element perserved from "Year One").
Ultimately, Nolan and Goyer have created a brilliant yet flawed superhero epic that lacks a strong villain (Nolan hints that the Joker may materialize in later installments) and doesn't quite live up to the hype. On the other, it leaves opportunity for that rarest of Hollywood animal: The sequel that supasses the original.
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes
Rating: PG-13 (intense action violence, distubing images and some thematic elements)
Running time: 141 minutes
Playing: Opens today at theaters Valleywide