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Monday, May 23, 2005

The Darkest Knight yet : "Batman begins" !

Bat out of hell

Christian Bale delivers the Darkest Knight yet

Jesus, psycho killer, Hamlet, dragon slayer—Christian Bale has played all these roles.

Now the 31-year-old Briton, who's forged an unusual career path from child star (Empire of the Sun) to tween idol (Swing Kids) to critics' darling (Velvet Goldmine), will wear the mask of Batman, in a performance that may be the culmination of all those archetypal figures combined.

But will Batman Begins be a curse as well as a blessing for Bale? The gig was meant to make superstars of three actors before him, yet nearly wrecked their careers instead. But unlike Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Bale is portraying the comic-book crusader as a kind of villain (or as close to a rogue as the rules of summer movies will allow). He's brooding and bent on revenge in Batman Begins: the Prince of Denmark in a bat suit.

But Bale, who filmed on the streets of Chicago last summer, is that rare talent who just might pull it off. Consider his masterfully funny, seductive and ruthless performance in American Psycho. He's also willing to go to extremes—the same year he played the Wall Street serial killer, he played the son of God in a reverent TV movie and more recently lost 63 pounds to play a tortured soul in The Machinist. Now, Bale's bulked up and ready to get batty.—Justine Elias

Time Out Chicago: What made you decide to take on something like Batman? It seems like an odd choice for you.

Christian Bale: A friend of mine gave me some of the graphic novels to read some years back. I didn't really follow the comics when I was younger, and I read them kind of begrudgingly at first. But after I'd finished them I thought, "Wow!" There is such incredible potential within this character. In the later books, he's a real badass; he's as threatening as any of the villains and that got me curious. I thought, "Well, if there is going to be a movie made in this vein, then I want to have a shot at playing him."

TOC: Batman's been reduced to a simplified character over the years, but the psychological damage he's gone through makes him a rather complex hero.

CB: Right. Time has not healed any of his wounds. He's as alert to his pain as he ever was.

TOC: But you couldn't have known that when Warner Bros. decided to revive the franchise that it'd be willing to explore the darker side of Batman. Many people just figured it'd go back to somebody in a costume riding a motorcycle down a neon-lit highway.

CB: [Laughs] I really hope that's not what people think of this. When I first heard they were, in fact, going to do another Batman film, Darren Aronofsky [Pi, Requiem for a Dream] was attached to it. I was really interested in seeing what his take would be. Then when Darren dropped out, I gave up hope that I'd ever play the role. But when I heard that Chris Nolan had signed on, I realized that it wasn't going to be just another comic-book film. We discussed what he wanted to do with the notion of how this young man turns into this vengeance- driven man, and I thought, "Yes! He gets it!" I was ready to sign on then and there.

TOC: How did people react when you walked onto the set in the suit?

CB: This sounds odd to say, but there was a weird sense of reverence. I would slink and skulk around the set when I had it on, trying out moves, and there was the nice sense that the crew found it more threatening than they might have anticipated. I always thought that the costume should look intimidating, that Batman should look like a panther going in for the kill. The effect should be like watching a coiled spring that's ready to go off. So when folks sort of backed off from me when I had it on, I felt like, yes, the suit is working.

TOC: Do you think people who haven't read the graphic novels are ready for a malevolent version of the Caped Crusader?

CB: We'll see. I think there's room to push the character even further into being a schizophrenic freak. I mean, the fact that he hasn't embraced his violent side entirely is what makes him so interesting; there's a great sense of conflict between him doing it for justice and doing it for revenge. I'd really love to see us doing a Batman film in which there was a PG-rated cut and an R-rated cut. You know, do the same film, but have one version for everybody and one version in which you really push the envelope of what this guy does.

TOC: Taking on a role like this must be a double-edged sword. It will raise your profile, but then there's a certain amount of baggage that might inhibit you from doing smaller roles, like the rock producer's son in Laurel Canyon or the glam-rock–obsessed journalist in Velvet Goldmine, right?

CB: That's certainly occurred to me, yes. But I certainly wasn't going to [let] the opportunity to play a character I'd wanted to play for two or three years pass me by because I was worried about not getting another job. I didn't want to make a choice like that out of a sense of fear. If it does well, which I really hope that it does, and I am associated with the character, hey, so be it. It's another challenge for me to overcome.

Batman Begins opens June 15.

Bat Psych 101

Director Christopher Nolan probes Bruce Wayne's brain

I can confirm that there are no nipples on the suit," says Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker revitalizing the Batman-movie franchise. Forget the garish excesses that have plagued recent incarnations of the Dark Knight, from Jim Carrey's over-the-top Riddler outfit in Batman Forever (1995) to George Clooney's adventures in the flamboyant Batman & Robin (1997).

"My basic pitch was simply to approach a superhero story from a realistic point of view," says the 34-year-old director, famous for his psychological time-bender Memento. "That is to say, to tell the story in a way that was as gritty and down-to-earth as possible."

Inspired by Frank Miller's Batman: Year One comics, Batman Begins follows the transformation of Bruce Wayne into the masked avenger after witnessing his parents' murder. Nolan says the film will burrow into the dark recesses of Wayne's mind instead of relying on explosions or Gothic exteriors. "We're treating this less as [a] fantasy film and more like a drama," he says. "We're trying to give the decisions these characters make a certain amount of weight and not reduce everything to the level of just being another comic-book film. The closest thing I've ever seen to that would be Dick Donner's Superman (1978), which did location shooting in New York and takes its subject matter seriously."

For Batman Begins, Nolan chose, in part, Chicago and Waukegan streets for his vision of Gotham. (Other scenes were shot in England and Iceland.) "It's just such an incredible town," says the British-born Nolan, who first discovered movies during the three years he lived in Chicago as a boy. "They let us shoot this amazing car-chase scene in the subterranean streets," (that'd be Lower Wacker Drive). And the architecture is absolutely stunning."

Citing Star Wars, along with other childhood favorites like Raiders of the Lost Ark and "the best James Bond films," Nolan believes "escapist entertainment" doesn't have to be driven by rubber suits and car chases. "They are epic films, but they have a much higher degree of concern with character and story," he says. "It's been a very long time since I've seen something done in a way that great blockbusters that I grew up with were done, and that was the type of film I was trying to make."