Thursday, December 20, 2007

Shadow Warrior

BATMAN (1989)


After more hype than should be necessary for one motion picture; after cities like Los Angeles have gone totally batnuts; after every store, everywhere has loaded up on Batman merchandize, the shouting is over, and the film has opened to mixed reviews.

The film lived up to all I hoped it would be, and surpassed all expectations in the realm of art direction. Tim Burton, director ( BEETLEJUICE, and a former animator for Disney ), Anton Furst (production designer), Roger Pratt (director of photography), andBob Kane (the original comic book artist that created Batman in 1939), all toiled perfectly as a team.

This movie measures up to both its original dark vision, and to 1990 insights. Most of the film takes place at night, as it should. Batman, aka the Dark Knight, is rarely seen during the day. Much of the gothic look and feel seemed to come directly from the busy pages of D.C.Comics. In the last fifty years since the inception of the caped crusader, dozens of exceptional artists have drawn him, and shared their personal vision of his Noirworld. Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Jim Aparo, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Gil Kane, all borrowing from Bob Kane. I loved the Neal Adams covers the best, and Jim Aparo has done the most over the last fifteen years to set the tone of the series.

The Batman of this film most closely resembles his brilliant graphics.When they filmed SUPERMAN, they simply let shots ofNew York City stand in for Metropolis. But in Burton's BATMAN, we feast our eyes on a Gotham City that is totally new; challenging the viewer to simply watch the action, and not be distracted by the fabulous sets. There is a bizarre blend of several decades similtaneously on the screen. The cityscapes are so carefully crafted, and the sets so meticulously dressed, it takes several viewings of the movie to completely appreciate their splendor.

One recalls Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS, and Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER. For over four months, Burton filmed the city scenes in England at Pinewood Studios, inhabiting 18 sound stages, and using all 95 acres of the lot. This film is reputed to have the largest outdoor set since CLEOPATRA, and it shrank even the massive sprawl of STAR WARS when it was made there.

The characters dress in the style of the 1930's, drive'50's and '60's cars, use computers and modern weaponry. As incongruous as this might seem, Burton weaves it all together magically. The world of the film is very complete, down to a brand new Batmobile, that looks every bit like something Doc Savage or the Shadow would have driven. But it is assisted by a jet turbine. It's onboard computer responds to voice commands from Batman [spawning real technology likeGM's OnStar system]; and it does a nifty parlor trick called "cocooning", covering itself with armor plating, like a great ebony armidillo, impervous to tampering or vandalism.

The music is basically satisfying, except for the inclusion of the gratuitous pop pounding that is played by the artist known as Prince. This rap-raggae noise adds nothing to the movie. When Prince's tunes blare, the forward movement of every scene is stifled, and nearly strangled. One can only assume that the all-wise producers wanted to market a musical album;Soundtrack from Batman, featuring music by Prince. They probably figured that Prince was a safe bet, a popular choice. Wrong. And yet, we all know that legions of bubblegummers everywhere stand at the ready to buy albums; adolescent lemmings, victims of the media blitz.

The writers, Sam Wamm and Warren Skaaren, should be applauded for their skillful research of all the Batman lore of the past. They give us a contemporary Batman; a crime fighter far beyond tomorrow. The dialogue is tough, sassy and gritty, and there are enough one-liners included to fill three Bond movies; giving a realistic flavor to the piece that films like the excellent SUPERMAN never did achieve.

Unfortunately, some of the special effects are not up to the standards of the art direction. The shots utilizing models, especially those scenes with the Batwing, are mostly uninspired. Even the bluescreen process seems clumsy, and the live action shots of our hero are poorly matched to the paper mache and molded rubber stand-ins. If this were FLASH GORDON of the1930's, cheesy effects would be forgivable, but in a film like this one, those few poorly executed effects stick out like ants at a picnic.

The plot revolves around introductions; the introduction of Batman to Gotham City, and to us; the introduction of the master criminal Jack Napier, who tumbles into a vat of toxic waste, and is metamorphed into the Joker; the introduction of the love interest,Vicki Vale. We meet Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon,who plays it straight, making the role credible, and humorous. Billy Dee Williams was District Attorney Harvey Dent, and even though he is a fine actor, he got lost in the mad shuffle of cameos and action. He was much better served by his role as Lando Calrissian, in the two STAR WARS sequels. In an unbilled guest appearance, in several scenes, New York mayor Ed Koch played Mayor Borg of Gotham City. He managed to spit out his few lines with a kind of frenetic conviction. Jack Palance does a nice turn as the original crime boss of Gotham, Carl Grissom. Robert Wuhl did an energetic job with the thankless role of Alexander Know, the newspaper reporter, who never quite gets the full story or the girl; but we like him anyway. Tracey Walter is quite memorable as the Joker's henchman, Bob; bringing to it just the right ingredients of larceny and lunacy, making the thug both dangerous and ludicrous.

Michael Gough, still breathing after all those British Hammer horror films of thirty years ago, is superb as Alfred, Batman's butler and confidant; managing to project humanity and exactitude in the same breath. Gough's performance brought to mind a plethora of othe rexcellent English butlers in cinema...actors like Sebastian Cabot, Boris Karloff, Clifton Webb, David Niven, Robert Morley, and of course John Geilgud.

Which brings us to the principal actors, Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger. Since this film seems destined to be studied, judged, and later resurrected into a full blown cult classic (BATMAN ONE), it is obvious that with so much at stake, and so much on the screen, these actors took some chances.

Kim Basinger, as Vicki Vale, took the least chances, but in all fairness to the actress, the role as written, does not have the depth it would need to allow her to put some flesh on this paper doll. Her intial scenes are very credible, and they seem to indicate, to promise, much more than the character later delivers. Basinger can be an accomplished comedienne, as she showed in NADINE, or she can vamp her way to the last row in the theatre with unbridled sexuality, as in 9 1/2 WEEKS. Her Vicki Vale could have been both funny and sexy, but she was denied both avenues of expression. It becomes quite obvious by mid-point in the picture that our sweet Vicki is mere window dressing to the classic conflict of Yin & Yang, Good vs. Evil, Batman vs. Joker. Both protagonists use and abuse her, but she seems to prefer the Bat-advances.

Much will be be written about Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He is so good that the Academy would be stuporous not to nominate him for an academy award; but the nomination will have to be for "best supporting actor". Nicholson's name appears first in the credits, but that is probably something more contractual than prophetic. I suspect that the producers helped to sell the picture on the strength of snaring Nicholson; much the same as when Brando signed up for SUPERMAN. Without a doubt, this is JackNicholson's best work. He pulls out all the stops, and takes chances that no other major star would dream of. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and THE SHINING were just warm-ups for the incredible heights he scales in this film.

In theatre, with the Italian Commedia-del-Arte, and with French farce, when a character can build a scene to lunacy from out of a logical situation, there comes a point when the performance is so outrageous that it eclipses funny, and moves into the third level of comedy; the absurd. Not very many actors are skilled enough to get to that third level in film. JacquesTati, Peter Sellers, Peter O'Toole (on a good day), Dustin Hoffman (sometimes), and now Jack Nicholson...they all could do it. I am not talking about slapstick; the absurd third level is much more subtle and sophisticated. Even the great clowns like Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton could not achieve it on film.

One must keep in mind, that for an actor, "Dying is easy; Comedy is hard.". Jack Nicholson amazes us, stuns us, exasperates us, angers us, surprises us, and touches us, but he never bores us. This is definitely not the Joker played as mannered clown, ala Cesar Romero on the '60's T.V.Show. No, this is a Joker who happens to have genetically altered alpha-rhythms, green hair, and a permanent smirk on a surgically reconstructed jaw, and a rather unorthodox love of bright primary colors for his wardrobe. Nicholson as the Joker takes center stage whenever he can, and he is a virtuoso performer. But we never forget, thanks to the deft touches of Tim Burton, that the Joker is only MacBeth to his Lady MacBeth, Mercution to his Romeo, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, and Ed Norton to his Ralph Cramden. In each of these cases, when a creative actor plays the supporting role, their performance lingers in the mind, and seems at first, to steal the show. The list is endless, Iago to Othello, Pancho to the Cisco Kid, Rowdy Yates to Gil Favor on RAWHIDE; lots of flash, great energy, mercurial personalities, and armed with memorable one-liners. But always written and designed to be only magnificent mantle-pieces and passionate picture frames, as support for the leads.

Yes, I know that a great actor in a supporting role can blow a less talented actor in a leading role right out of the water, right off the stage, and right off the screen. But rest assured, this does not happen in BATMAN. This movie belongs to Michael Keaton. He is just very generous with it in regards to Nicholson. A strong parallel for this premise was done in the classic western, SHANE. Initially, Alan Ladd seemed overshadowed by the brute force and charisma of both Jack Palance and Van Heflin. Palance and Heflin acted their spurs off, and some reviewers felt "stole the picture.". But with repeated viewings, one sees Alan Ladd firmly in control. Ladd played Shane most effectively by underplaying, holding back. Ladd was the centerpiece, and no matter how bravura were the supporting players, they had to revolve around, and react to, Shane.

Michael Keaton as Batman, the Lord of Wayne Manor, skillfully accomplishes the same task. He exhibited both control and focus. We watch Keaton brood and think, and there is a real inner monologue behind his eyes. He proves what a fine actor he is by covering most of his face in that Batmask. We get a peek of the pain that he wore like a chain mail around his dark troubled soul. A wealthy young man, orphaned early,who applied his remarkable intelligence adversely, to feed into the terrible vengeance that he planned for the denizens of the underworld. His great wealth seemed authentic, due in part to the wonderful opulence fo the sets, and the care in detail. His weaponry seemed real, like the best of the Bond gimmicks. His pain seemed real, as he found himself unable to express love, avoided committments, and he only seemed whole when he emerged at night embracing his alternate personality.

This is a Batman who is far from supernatural; rather he was a techno-wizard who had studied martial arts and understood bushido, a Zen Warrior gliding black garbed as a creature of the night, distilling havoc to all those that he perceived as evil. He was a frightening visage in gray-ebony battle armor, who was savy as a streetfighter, a pilot, a frogman, and a race driver. Sound familiar? Not really. It is all portrayed as fresh and new. It needs to be seen to be believed. The actual threat that the Joker's gang represented to the frightened populous, and the terrible revenge that Batman exacted from them in the final reel was far from standard comic book scripting.Tim Burton served it up with a delicious difference, and somehow this pulp plot emerged as a solid visual entertainment.

Glenn Buttkus 1989

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