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‘Batman Begins’ resurrects the franchise

Christian Bale stars in this darker version of the Caped Crusader's story. By John Hartl

It’s been eight years since director Joel Schumacher contaminated the Batman series with the lamentable “Batman & Robin” — and a full decade since he started the job by directing the only-slightly-less-lamentable “Batman Forever.”

But not even those debacles could keep a good franchise down, especially now that “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” have come to an end. “Batman Begins,” a prequel created by writer-director Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) and his co-writer, David S. Goyer (“Dark City”), takes place in a galaxy far, far away from SchumacherLand.

In place of nippled batsuits, it offers a relatively realistic take on the story, starting with a traumatic episode from Bruce Wayne’s childhood. After seeing his parents gunned down in an alley, Bruce wants to execute the beggar who did it. But he eventually decides that he wants justice, not revenge, and broadens his approach to law enforcement by defending the defenseless of Gotham.

Unfortunately, this leads to a number of by-the-numbers fights and car chases, which help to drag the running time well past two hours. Nolan and Goyer also demonstrate a weakness for fortune-cookie dialogue (“To conquer fear you must become fear”) that lends unintentional humor to this relatively humorless film.

What saves the prequel is the parade of great character actors, in roles large and small — and Nolan knows exactly what to do with each of them.

Tom Wilkinson, slumming stylishly as a self-confident gangster king, revels in the chance to radiate pure evil. Liam Neeson and Michael Caine take turns playing Bruce’s mentor; one is compromised, the other is the soul of resourceful integrity. Ken Watanabe is scarily ruthless as a ninja villain. Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer and Linus Roache also make the most of their screen time.

Some of the less well-known actors also stand out. Cillian Murphy, the star of “28 Days Later,” is smoothly diabolical as the poison-obsessed villain, Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka “The Scarecrow.” Katie Holmes (best-known as Tom Cruise’s off-screen girlfriend) plays Rachel (Batman’s Lois Lane) as a beguiling mixture of skepticism and faith in her man to do the right thing.

Christian Bale, having out-skinnied every weight-losing actor last year with his skeletal approach to “The Machinist,” pumped himself back up to play the young Bruce Wayne — before he acquired his Batsuit. The 31-year-old Welsh actor, whose cult following is based largely on his ability to make a strong impression in costly flops (“Newsies,” “Empire of the Sun”), does a fine job in a difficult role.

Despite all the physical violence in the film, the most shocking thing Bruce does is insult a roomful of dilettantes who have no idea he’s a heroic figure. In perhaps the most effective scene, he dismisses his vulnerable guests from what looks like a perfectly swell party. Of course they don’t know it, but he has his reasons for acting boorishly.

“Batman Begins” is cluttered with too much plot, too many locations and a sense that it’s always trying to do too much. But as long as the actors keep coming, and connecting with their roles, it’s a treat.