No disrespect to Tim Burton, but Batman Begins blows away ALL the previous films, even Burton's. This is THE Batman film to date, and though Christopher Nolan did take some creative liberties on certain issues (i.e. deviate from canon), he managed to distill the essence of the character (make that all the characters) and put it into one 140min film. Excellent!
Unfortunately, as a fanboy, this review will be filled with spoilers, but I'll indicate those portions as I go along.
Some liberties stem from the flashback scenes of the Wayne murders. The Wayne family didn't actually watch an opera, it was a trip to the movies - "The Mask of Zorro", and Joe Chill, while accurately portrayed as the killer, and was after the pearl necklace (I shuddered when Thomas Wayne showed Bruce that item), Chill was never caught, and neither was he killed when leaving the courtroom. I suppose this was the major liberty taken, but I was felt ok with it.
There has been talk that Gordon was one of the cops who picked up Bruce, as shown in the film, but if given a choice, I would prefer a cameo by Dr Leslie Thomkins!
But what Nolan did to hit the head on the nail was to explore to some depth the history of the Wayne Family's involvement in Gotham City, from the railway track beneath the Cave, to the philantrophy of the family to their city. Good research done!
The film runs in three acts, with the first being his training with the League of Shadows and flashbacks of his childhood days. It is during this training that sets Bruce/Batman's principle of never taking a life. And he doesn't. Therefore kudos to Chris Nolan. The Batman just doesn't kill, and neither does he use guns.
The next act is where the fun begins, as Bruce sets out his journey to rid Gotham of its criminal underworld. Classic scenes include the lone bat appearing in Bruce's room (thus his decision to dress as one), and the "exploration" of Wayne Enterprises with Lucius Fox to obtain his gear (hence the advance technology). Nolan teases the audience for an hour with all the preparation, before the Batman appears. It is dark, mysterious, and the action is fast. Some may complain that you "cannot see anything", but I would like to point out that's how Batman operates - swiftly and stealthily. He doesn't stand around! The anticipation of the baddies for his appearance all the more bumps up expectations, and it succeeds, to the pulsating score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. In particular, I liked the way Batman interrogated his victims - exactly like the comic books! You never saw this in any of the earlier films! I was like, hell yeah, that's exactly how it's done!
And the last act is where everything comes together - the action and the finale battle. Again, classic scenes were featured, like Gordon's collaboration with Batman, and Bat's trust in him, the very Year One scene of Bats against the SWAT team, and activating a signal to bring his backup of bats to assist in escape (though the scene in the film has changed to Arkham Asylum), and a Year One ending, which sets up a teaser for the sequel (I hope it happens!)
Fear is the running theme throughout - Bruce Wayne's fear of bats after accidentally discovering the Batcave beneath Wayne Manor, Gothamites' fear of the criminal underworld, Dr Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow's use of Fear as a weapon. The effects of the latter is fascinating to watch because of the effective use of CGI, as we see the victim's fear come alive [spoiler: I was especially pleased with Crane's vision of Batman when affected by his own gas]
Fans of the comics will get kicks from seeing serial killer Victor Zsas, and though it was somewhat a cameo appearance, he was given respect, unlike Bane's treatment under the hands of Joel Schumacher. We also got a glimpse of Gordon's wife Barbara and kid James Jr, and [spoiler: a mention of Ra's wife, and his reminiscence of her]. Although the Lazarus Pit was never mentioned, we'd probably know it could have been, given what progressed in the movie.
Many "bat-toys" in this film are born out of necessity rather than to sell more merchandise, which I though was excellent story telling. From his harness to his suit to the utility belt (finally, a working model!), to the cape (which doubles up as a glider) and of course to The Tumbler which would be the Batmobile.
And judge not a book by its cover. While the first appearance of this vehicle caused many fans to shake their heads in disbelief, watch this film and you see it being used in full glory - it ROCKS! There's also a running joke on how the vehicle was described - from "it's a... a... tank!" to "it's black... you'll know it when you see it"
Incidentally or otherwise, I felt this film also paid homage to Burton's films, [spoiler: with the rescue-the-girl-in-batmobile-race-to-cave-give-her-cure-send-her-home scene, and the discovery of Bat's identity though re-using dialogue that only the lovers know]
Singapore was also mentioned (twice) in the film, although it was sort of in negative light (as if we're a major smuggler's paradise) but what the heck! It was a hoot to hear how Bruce and Alfred plan to smuggle their bat-wares using the Wayne Enterprises cargo transhipping though our ports!
I give the thumbs up to casting Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He brought out the reluctance of living the double life (as the playboy, though he really hammed it up!), his need to getting used to late nights and morning alibis, and the tenacity and menace as the Dark Knight. Michael Caine IS Alfred Pennyworth - the never failing butler and surrogate father who never gave up hope on Bruce while delivery witty sarcasms, and his belief in the Wayne Family, Gary Oldman brought James Gordon into life and gave him the depth we are accustomed to in the comics (unlike earlier Pat Hingle versions). In summary, the casting was excellent, and everyone (except for Ken Watanabe) were given ample screen time to flesh their characters.
I'll be ready for a sequel, and I hope that the box office numbers will bring it on soon enough! My wishlist will be (apart from the obvious villain) to feature Harvey Dent, as they will definitely need a new District Attorney. If the sequel features this "trinity" of Gordon-Bats-Dent (and the prospect of Dent becoming Two-Face), I'll be in Bat Cloud Number Nine!
Highly recommended for fans and non-fans (you'll be converted) alike.