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Batman, At Last

Sexy and soulful, Schumacher's epic proves the third time's the charm

I was disappointed in the first two Batman movies. Despite moments of dark wit and visual brilliance, they didn't move me emotionally, and I didn't think much of them as entertainment, either.

The problem was their director, Tim Burton. He's an artist, not a showman; a visionary, not a storyteller. As haunting and visually audacious as his superhero movies sometimes were, they were lacking in the meat-and-potatoes department. The action wasn't particularly fluid or exciting, and most of the time Batman didn't even move convincingly.

Unlike the graceful midnight icon fetishized in five decades of comic books, an icon who flashed so quickly through the frame that his presence was often represented by a blurred boot heel or part of a fluttering cape, Burton's Caped Crusader moved like Robocop in leather -- a big, self-righteous lug.

Even more vexing was Burton's apparent lack of interest in Batman as a character. The filmmaker probed deeply into the souls of his physically disfigured outcast villains, but he often forgot that the pictures were supposed to be about an emotionally disfigured outcast hero. Burton's films treated Bruce Wayne's phobias glancingly and robbed him of humor. He should have been a twisted, tragic and charismatic hero, but most of the time he came off as just a mopey rich guy with a bat fixation.

No wonder Michael Keaton decided to forgo a $10 million payday and hang up his cape. Not even the greediest actor would want to spend another six months in a sweaty rubber suit on behalf of a film series that didn't even have the decency to provide him with a character worth rooting for.

If his replacement, the lanky goofball Val Kilmer, wasn't so much fun to watch, I'd say that Keaton should have stuck around. Just about everything that went wrong with the first two movies goes right in Batman Forever. Director Joel Schumacher, whose diverse resume includes The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Flatliners, The Lost Boys and The Client, has as stunning an eye as Burton, but he's a far more disciplined storyteller.

The third movie looks bigger, bolder and busier than the first two (the result of location shooting in playfully redecorated Manhattan and Los Angeles streets, and the most lavish indoor sets $100 million can buy). And it has most of the same popcorny script elements: cackling villains and their armies of henchmen invading black-tie galas and holding people hostage; Batman trading sexy, double-edged quips with a love interest who's nowhere near as clueless as she looks; and James Bondian fortresses going up in titanic clouds of tangerine-colored flame.

Yet paradoxically, it's also more intimate, more controlled -- as compact as the Batmobile and every bit as fast, deadly and gorgeous. Unlike Burton, Schumacher doesn't let his thematic fascinations run away with him; he keeps one hand on the wheel at all times. The result isn't as emotionally daring and visually outrageous as Burton at his best, but it's better paced and more consistently entertaining from one sequence to the next. And it actually manages to make us care about its title character -- to draw us inside his nightmares and longings, and make us believe it makes sense for a man whose parents were murdered by a mugger to work out his traumas by dressing as a crime fighting humanoid bat.

Not that Bruce Wayne has suddenly become comfortable with himself. His sleep is disturbed by nightmares from his childhood. He's still living in the musty recesses of Wayne Manor, a gothic country fortress perched atop his subterranean headquarters, the Bat Cave. His closest pal is his elderly butler and surrogate dad, Alfred (veteran English character actor Michael Gough), who, if we're to believe the script, was hired away from Buckingham Palace. (Baloney: if this crafty old man, who's an expert in everything from sewing and table service to electronics research and jet engine repair, ever worked for the Queen, Britain would still have an empire.)

Wayne is Gotham City's biggest philanthropist, its most eligible bachelor and its most benevolent corporate mogul: the employees of his multinational firm get profit sharing opportunities, and when a middle manager dies in what appears to be a suicide, Wayne makes sure the fellow's family gets insurance benefits anyway. But his confident facade hides a wounded heart: this bat is hurting.

Complications ensue from minute one. Deranged former district attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), who unaccountably blames Batman for an act of courtroom violence that disfigured him -- a mobster tossed a vial of acid at his head, leaving half his face looking like a bowl of pesto sauce -- is on the loose. He calls himself Two-Face, and he chooses life or death for his hostages by flipping a coin, one side of which is scarred. It's tough to tell whether Two-Face cherishes this ritual because it represents the cruel randomness of fate or because he looks really mysterious and evil when he does it. (As the script is fond of pointing out, he's of two minds on every subject.)

In the movie's stunning opening, Batman foils an attempted bank heist by Two-Face. Their confrontation leads to a wild helicopter ride through Gotham that ends with our hero diving into the harbor just before the chopper crashes into the cheek of the Statue of Liberty, scarring the monument's face with the same blackened pattern as Dent's slimy visage. (Two-Face escapes in a parachute emblazoned with the Yin-Yang symbol; it's indicative of Schumacher's confidence that we only glimpse this sight gag for a fraction of a second.)

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