With strong cast and direction, prequel engrosses and electrifies

This Batman and his real-world story are believable, but some scenes are too scary for young kids.
It's tempting to call "Batman Begins," opening Wednesday, the darkest Batman movie yet. But that's not it, exactly. What sets this prequel apart is consistency of tone. A thin layer of dread hangs over the picture and never lifts, despite bursts of humor and intense action sequences.
Directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Insomnia"), "Batman Begins" outwits other modern "Batman" films by constantly engrossing instead of momentarily electrifying. There are no outlandish, Joker-style villains here, but neither are there any dead spots. Plus, the proto-Batmobile is pretty nifty.
Nolan, co-writing with David S. Goyer, starts with a few advantages. How an icon became an icon always holds intrigue -- just ask George Lucas. Nolan explores the reasons why Bruce Wayne, handsome and super-rich, finds it necessary to dress as a bat and fight crime. There's definitely a story there, and Nolan, unlike predecessors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, is willing to leave the studio to tell it. As a result, "Batman Begins" seems like a real-world story instead of a soundstage confection.
The second advantage is in casting relative unknown Christian Bale as Wayne/Batman. Sure, he's been in films before, but how many people actually saw "American Psycho"? Bale comes into the role without the baggage of previous Batmen Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, who were established stars before putting on the mask.
Perfect as Wayne
He makes a terrific Batman, ferocious in costume and roiling with conflict when out of it. Yet he's also amiable enough so that Wayne's interactions with less tortured folks, from loyal butler Alfred, played by Michael Caine, to childhood friend and crusading prosecutor Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes, never come off as a god talking to a mortal.
Young Bruce's (played by Gus Lewis with appropriate gravity) troubles start with a disturbing incident involving a bunch of bats and become tragic when he witnesses his parents' murders. This scene is made more poignant because Linus Roache, playing Bruce's do-gooder father, has crafted a loving, nurturing parent in his brief time onscreen. The heartbreak intensifies when Alfred and the boy are first alone in the cavernous Wayne castle, and a look of tremendous compassion in Caine's eyes speaks to the struggles the orphaned boy will face.
Under the guidance of a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson), part of a global vigilante group, Wayne learns to evade detection -- ninja-style -- and practice the theatricality that will characterize the Caped Crusader's later exploits. Ducard also challenges his young charge in punishing fights that are more realistically brutal than anything in previous "Batman" films.
Star-studded cast
Gary Oldman plays Lt. Gordon, the last honest cop in Gotham City.
Caine, Oldman and Neeson anchor a fine supporting cast. Even Holmes, on the surface too callow for her prosecutor role, exudes a believable level of sophistication. Morgan Freeman brings his trademark wry knowingness to the role of Lucius Fox, a longtime employee of the Wayne family's corporation. Fox is the kind of company old-timer who knows where the bodies, and the unsold military technology, are buried. When Wayne asks for help, Fox pretends to go along with the young man's story that he needs high-tech materials for such activities as spelunking.
Wayne really scores with a low-slung tank deemed impractical by the military. If there is a quibble to be had with Nolan's direction, it comes from how he handles scenes with the tank. Shots of the vehicle in action are too tight, robbing us of the thrill of seeing it really moving.
It's the only time the filmmaking process calls attention to itself. Even the picture's most shocking moments, which at first appear more suited to a horror movie than to a comic-book film (and are too scary for younger kids), eventually flow into the rest of the story.
Nolan's achievement can be attributed partly to his careful, unshowy application of special effects, but also to his storytelling skills.
"Batman Begins," in its restraint and seriousness of purpose, so envelops the audience that even the most outrageous developments seem perfectly reasonable.

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