BATMAN Begins Movie Poster "He's Baaat." I mean, "He's baaack." Rising out of the spectral snow of TV and film, BATMAN BEGINS is an old take on an old legend; and in a sense Batman resembles Bruce Lee when it comes to superheroes and martial arts films.

One thing I've noticed when comparing the martial arts films of Bruce, Jackie, Jet and other great martial arts movie stars is that only after Lee's movies do exiting audiences start jumping around, throwing kicks, doing sound effects and trying to act like Lee. Why? Because he was cool and we wanted to do what he was doing. We realized that although Lee was good, he was not endowed with superpowers; he was just a little guy taking on the big guy, a hero we could aspire to be, knowing that if we trained hard enough, maybe we could become like Bruce.

The director of BATMAN BEGINS, Chris Nolan, responds to my sentiment by pointing out, "Hmm, yes, in keeping with that spirit, you could never be Superman, Incredible Hulk, but anybody can conceivably be Batman, a superhero with no superpowers. So if you tried hard enough, you could think that you could be like Batman.

"I wanted to tell a Batman story I'd never seen, the one fans have been waiting to see, the story of how Bruce becomes Batman, his real story, so to speak."

Created by Bob Kane, Batman first appeared in DETECTIVE COMICS #27 (May, 1939) What is the real story? Created for DC Comics by artist Bob Kane, Batman first appeared in DETECTIVE COMICS #27 (May, 1939) as a wraith silhouette against the Gotham City skyline, a mysterious and menacing self-appointed guardian, a winged gargoyle living in the shadows between hero and vigilante. Unfortunately, this mantle of agony was lost in the 1966 BATMAN TV show when ABC made it a "camp" show, only to lose its novelty two years later. Then in 1986, Frank Miller's release of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS featured Batman as a dark brooding hero fighting in an even darker world. This is the caped crusader that helped usher in a grim, gritty era of modern comics and inspired Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989 as well as today's guilt-ridden, tortured anti-hero in the retrofitted BATMAN BEGINS.

Miller's eclectic fascination with the ninja probably derived from watching films rather than understanding history. As an artist, he began working on "Daredevil" in 1979, which led to the creation of "Elektra," a ninja-trained assassin and sometime romantic interest for Daredevil. In 1982, he re-fleshed the X-Men character Wolverine and remodeled him into a modern-day masterless samurai, a ronin. Then in 1983 Miller once again seethed into the fertile grounds of Japanese history and culture with RONIN, the tale of a samurai from ancient Japan shifted forward to a cyberpunk future to fight a demonic foe.

The 1986 retelling of BATMAN's first year. When he restructured Batman in 1986, he retold in BATMAN: YEAR ONE the origins of Batman, his training and his initial disastrous foray as a vigilante, with a fresh look at the childhood event that would eventually create the Batman. Gotham was not a city of costumed freaks but a corrupt police force sleeping with the gangsters that controlled the city. And so comes our movie.

Nolan adds, "There really is no one definitive account of Batman's origins, but with our interpretation of his character. Over the years there are key events that make Batman who he is and make his story the great legend that he has come to be. We (including writing partner David Goyer) developed logical explanations for everything that Bruce Wayne does and for every device he acquires in the film and filled in a lot of very interesting gaps in the mythology that we were able to interpret ourselves and bring in our own ideas of Bruce and Batman."

Director Chris Nolan, Christian Bale and Ken Watanabe

Christian Bale, who did a wonderfully wacky job as a stoic "crime fighter" in EQUILIBRIUM (which featured some nifty fight choreography) plays the cryptic Bruce Wayne and his mournful alter-ego Batman, shares, "I discovered this new Batman rendition, the Dark Knight, several years ago at a comic book store in Santa Monica. It was a Batman I had never seen before; he was dark, dangerous and definitely more interesting than any other comic book or villain."

Liam Neeson as Ducard Tormented by guilt and anger derived from seeing his parents needlessly gunned down in front of him as a child, Bruce Wayne secretly travels the world seeking ways to fight injustice and battle the demons that feed his desire for revenge and are tearing his soul and mind apart. He meets a mysterious mentor called Ducard (Liam Neeson) who teaches Bruce to master the physical and mental disciplines that will empower him to fight the evil he has vowed to destroy. Enter martial arts training sequences and Miller's love for the ninja as Bruce ends up becoming the target of the recruiting efforts by the League of Shadows, a powerful, subversive vigilante group headed by the mysterious ring leader Ra's al Guhl (Ken Watanabe: the wise Samurai leader from THE LAST SAMURAI).

Here's where the filmmakers could have demonstrated some historical savvy; instead, they chose to sink into the ignorance of most Hollywood productions, reasoning that if the audience doesn't care or know, why should they care.

Ken Watanbe as Ra's al Guhl Bruce finds himself in a Chinese prison. Upon release, he makes his way to the Himalayas, climbs a mountain, winds up with the League of Shadows, bumps into Ducard, and Ducard tells him that they are all ninjas. What would have been neater and geographically correct would be for Ducard to explain that they are a remnant of the Chinese Forest Devils that existed in South China, the true progenitor of the ninja. Then having a group of assassins who look and fight like ninjas but live in the Himalayas wouldn't have been a stretch. Likewise, the training sequences would have made more sense since Bruce undergoes Shaolin pole training, where people fight on top of tall wooden logs hammered into the ground as seen in Donnie Yen's IRON MONKEY.

To the film's credit, the training sequences don't drag on, and the all-too-familiar teacher-student philosophical soliloquies ("know yourself, use your anger, understand your fear") is kept to a minimum.

Nolan explains that in developing Batman's combat method and the film's visceral fight sequences, he searched for a style that married the gritty intensity of street fighting with a disciplined martial arts approach. "For Batman, everything is about function, about the most effective way of doing something; so we needed a style that is brutal, economical and real."

Bale elaborates, "Yeah, we really wanted something that would look as though Bruce Wayne-as-Batman had created his own style of fighting, something that was unique in style and look. I mean, a big part of the Batman persona is the aggressive, animalistic way he attacks his enemies. I wanted to show how devastating he is when he charges forward and attacks people, and his resilience in taking blows as well."

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne at ninja training camp Nolan also wanted the combat to be more jarring and realistic than the graceful, balletic form of fighting that comes from wire work, adding, "We've gotten comfortable seeing fighting portrayed in this graceful, dance-like fashion to the point where the violence loses its threat. I wanted to take it back to a grittier place, where you feel the punches a bit more."

What better place to return to than the pugilistic furor of Bruce Lee, a time when we marveled at his animalistic charisma and were galvanized by his sheer physical prowess. When he punched or kicked, you could feel it, because to Lee fighting was about feeling and not thinking. The filmmakers investigated an offshoot art of Lee's Jeet Kune Do, the Keysi Fighting Method.

KFM was created 20 years ago by JKD practitioner Justo Dieguez. It is not meant to be a new style but a new way of thinking, an expression of self-defense where the challenge is to better understand how the mind and body function, and to do that one must crack open the conditioning of the human mind. According to Dieguez, everybody's training is an ongoing attempt to evolve and grow, and with an open mind, desire and passion there are no limits other than the limits you impose on yourself. Summarizing in Lee's words, "Having no way as a way and no limit as your limit."

"The Keysi Fighting Method is a very intuitive kind of martial art. It's very effective, looks good, but also very, very brutal," Bale relates. "It's all about going for the break straight away. It's quite instinctive and it adapts to many different situations. So it truly looks as though this is Batman's own style that he's come up with."

Bale dedicated himself to five months of rigorous physical training to prepare for the demanding role. Achieving the necessary level of agility and fitness was made all the more challenging by the fact that he had lost 63 pounds, dropping from 184 pounds to an emaciated 121 pounds for his previous role as a tormented insomniac in THE MACHINIST.

Neeson and Bale squaring off during the ice fight

"Well for that, I completely destroyed my body," Bale admits. "I basically reduced myself to something almost less than human. I tried to do a push-up and couldn't. I went down and I didn't come back up. I couldn't do one single push-up because I had wrecked my muscles so much. Needless to say that I was ecstatic doing all those rapid fire push-ups in the film, truly a personal victory and comeback from where I was."

By the time filming commenced, Bale had gained back his former weight and added an additional 20 pounds of muscle to achieve his Bruce Wayne/Batman physique.

The first fight sequence filmed was Bruce's swordfight with Ducard, which was staged on a frozen Icelandic lake beneath a towering glacier. "It was beautifully dangerous and intimidating to say the least," Bale says in regard to filming in the shadow of the largest glacier in Europe, "and every now and then between takes and the time between set-ups we'd see ice crumbling away at the head of this glacier and bits of rock and muck falling off, and we knew this thing was a big living force that was moving towards us."

Due to the danger of filming on the temperamental ice, the safety team allowed only six people, including Bale and Neeson, to be on the frozen surface at a time. "We'd start hitting each other and smashing into the ice and then suddenly...CRACK!!! We would hear this wrenching, creaking, cracking sound right through the middle of the lake." Feral eyes darting back and forth, he continues, "We would all just stand dead still and look around at the lake and each other. Then the safety guys would scream, 'Get off! Get off!' Thankfully, we got the whole thing done in a day, because by the next day there was no ice whatsoever. It had melted into a lake again."

Charles Rover Producer with Liam Neeson

There's one shot in the fight that subliminally reflects the urgency and the constant slight panic of wanting to get off the ice, sneak back on, set up the shot and film it as quickly as possible. During a wide angle shot where Neeson and Bale are hacking and whacking away at each other, Neeson's coffee mug can be seen sitting on the ice's foreground.

In preparation for filming the backbreaking swordfight, Bale and Neeson spent weeks rehearsing at an ice rink. The actors were trained in kendo, and defended against blade attacks with forearm gauntlets. As Bale sums it up, "Practicing how to fight while standing on ice without falling on your ass all the time."

Which comes to what is really the shame of the film: all the fights are shot so tight that you get a headache watching them. You can't see a thing and have no sense of the accomplished effort and training that Bale put into the film. Per usual, Nolan says it's shot that way for realism, to bring the audience into the fight; but the reality is, it's shot to hide something: poor fight choreography. The beauty of Bruce Lee's films is that he was hiding nothing. As a real martial artist, he wanted everything on the screen for the whole world to see.

Big Batman shot

But BATMAN BEGINS' saving grace is that the fights are not what makes the film but the story and visual set pieces. For all you kung fu nostalgia buffs out there, look for a cameo by Roger Yuan, the guy who almost fought Jet Li in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA, and who took on Jackie Chan in SHANGHAI NOON.

In the final words of Bale, "It's the bat that's the key, for once this is clear in this film, a fear he got as a child, and as an adult, the constant reminder of the night his parents were murdered and of his own feelings of guilt. Upon returning to Gotham, it's the bat persona that becomes the clear answer to his need for a disguise and use it as a means to intimidate others and manipulate their fear, as well as master his own. He is, after all ... Batman."

About Dr. Craig Reid :
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