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MOVIE REVIEW

Bat to the future

Christian Bale's brooding Bruce Wayne recaptures series' dark magic in 'Batman Begins'

(Omission: A list of locations where ''Batman Begins" is playing was omitted from the review of the film in yesterday's Living/Arts section. The film is playing at Loews Theatres Boston Common, AMC Fenway, Jordan's IMAX Reading, Jordan's IMAX Natick, and suburban theaters. Also, the reviewer's rating was omitted. Critic Ty Burr gave the film three stars.)

In ''Batman Begins," Christian Bale gives us the best Bruce Wayne that has ever graced the screen. He's grave, intense -- a tormented straight-arrow lacking any of the camp feyness of Adam West on the old '60s TV show. This Wayne has a streamlined profile and eyes that are all business, and his joking one-liners carry the weight of a man who's seen more than he wants to. Wayne may play at being an all-American playboy but behind the social mask he's closer to an American psycho, a role this actor once made his own in a film of that very title. From Patrick Bateman to Batman, Bale hints, is a very small step.

Then he puts on the costume and the movie stumbles. Under the cowl, Bale's face looks pear-shaped and strangely un-Baleful; where Keaton and Kilmer and Clooney gained a malevolent edge from the hooded eyes and art deco ears, Bale resembles Jay Leno stuffed into a leftover ''Eyes Wide Shut" mask. It's an inexplicable miscalculation and not the only one in a movie on which the hopes of comic book freaks and Warner Bros. shareholders alike are riding.

Thankfully, ''Batman Begins" does far more right than it does wrong. This is especially true of the long central section that stands as the most deliciously smart ''origin story" in the long, pulpy history of comic book movies. If you've ever entertained doubter's logic watching one of these things -- Where, exactly, does a superhero get his outfit? What prompts a person to become a costumed arch-villain instead of, say, a carjacker or an IRS auditor? How do you excavate and outfit a state-of-the-art Batcave without the neighbors noticing the delivery vans? -- ''Batman Begins" is here to explain it all to you.

That it does so with a certain amount of cheek is thanks to co-writer-director Christopher Nolan, who made his name with the time-shifting head games of 2000's ''Memento" and who's sharper than his material here. ''Batman Begins" is at its weakest when tending to standard summer-action-movie business: the fight scenes and chase sequences are blurry, over-edited tangles of murk in which it's difficult to tell who is smacking whom with what large object. But everything concerned with how a billionaire orphan with a bat complex might go about setting up shop is genuinely inspired.

Nolan's Gotham City is a diseased, crepuscular burg: part ''Blade Runner," part ''Metropolis," part Abe Beame-era ''drop dead" New York. The vibe is Great Depression; the cars and clothing are day before yesterday. A tatty criminal enterprise run by Carmine Falcone -- British actor Tom Wilkinson with a juicy, fraudulent Chicaga accent -- controls the city. If there's a ray of sunlight anywhere in the movie, I don't recall it, and, anyway, the crew member responsible has probably been sacked.

The mugging deaths of young Bruce's parents is dealt with briefly and for maximum survivor guilt, and the director sketches the young man's early years with a lot of chronological back-and-forth. All you need to know is that he ends up in the high Himalayan training grounds of the League of Shadows, a group of extraordinarily Nietzschean gentlemen overseen by Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Wayne's personal trainer is Henri Ducard, played by Liam Neeson with an air of melancholy distraction, as if contemplating the choices that have led him from Oskar Schindler to this.

Comic book fans and teenage boys will eat this portentous stuff up, but it's old hat no matter how jazzy the editing. ''Batman Begins" springs to life as soon as Wayne goes back to Gotham and the character actors start popping up thicker than horseflies. Look, there's Michael Caine, single-handedly raising the film's pulse as butler Alfred; Rutger Hauer playing, for all intents and purposes, the Kenneth Lay of Wayne Enterprises, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the disgraced tech-genius who provides Bruce with all his toys. (The Batmobile as a mothballed Defense Department initiative? Genius.)

Scuttling between the scenes is Gary Oldman as a low-level Gotham City police detective named Gordon, one honest cop among the gleefully corrupt. Most surprisingly, there's British slacker-heartthrob Cillian Murphy (''28 Days Later") as Dr. Jonathan Crane, the prissy head psychiatrist of the Arkham Asylum for the Insane. Initially a cog in mobster Falcone's machine, Crane turns out to have his own nefarious plans, but Murphy plays it with such quiet blue-eyed creepiness that you realize with a start, well into the movie, he's a supervillain as well.

Everything in ''Batman Begins" has its prosaic, real-world explanation -- The Bat-Signal? Gordon's hastily improvised way of getting Batman's attention -- and if you've ever had any emotion invested in this story, there's huge satisfaction as each nugget of bat-data clicks neatly into place. The one puzzle piece that never fits, futz with it though the filmmakers may, is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Wayne's childhood sweetheart (before he had that unfortunate fall down a bat-filled well) and the current assistant district attorney/sitting duck. An actor needs to live large in a movie like this, but our Katie is a meek, saucer-eyed presence with the voice and dramatic heft of a girl. Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson could have her for breakfast and still feel peckish.

In the final act, Nolan is forced to knuckle under to the demands of plot, and the hollowness of the opening scenes returns. ''Batman Begins" feints at topical notions of airborne terrorism and fundamentalist disgust with American decadence, but it quickly devolves into rubble and noise. The climax features the hero and villain battling each other aboard a bullet train carrying a doomsday device toward the heart of the city at out-of-control speed. There is no part of that last sentence that is not a cliche.

Thankfully, Bale survives, even more than Batman or Bruce Wayne. The previous iteration of this franchise -- the ''Batman" movies kicked off by Tim Burton and pounded into inanity by Joel Schumacher -- were all surface pleasures and Special Guest Stars, with an everchanging, slightly out-of-focus Dark Knight at their centers.

Bale and Nolan tip their hats to Burton once or twice, but mostly they reclaim the character and make Bruce Wayne the author of his own fortunes. The dialogue leans hard on psychobabble about ''becoming one with your fears," and the star is too much the earnest young pro to wink at such nonsense. But he conveys, better than any Batman before him, the ridiculous thrill of playing dress-up to save the world.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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