Dir:Christopher Nolan. US. 2005. 140 mins.

LikeSam Raimi did with Spider-man,Christopher Nolan has gone back to the drawing board with the Batman characterin Batman Begins andemerged with an intensely dramatic, muscular action adventure picture whichshould be successful enough to kickstart the franchise for Warner Bros.

Eradicatingany of the camp and tongue-in-cheek antics which ultimately killed off the lastBatman series, Nolan goes deadlyserious in attempting to make Bruce Wayne a flawed human and his transformationinto Batman as believable as possible.

Nolanpeoples his Gotham City with brutal, ugly villains, and widespread fear. BruceWayne isn't about being butch in rubber, but about creating a symbol to battlethe corruption and crime that has taken over Gotham. The fistfights here arevisceral and bruising, the death is real and ugly, the Batcave is a real cavewith waterfalls and bats. Like Spider-man, Nolan's film explores the psychological flaws of the character -principally the guilt and rage Bruce suffers over his parents' murders. It's abold new vision of the DC Comics staple and further proof that Nolan possessesabundant confidence and vision as a mainstream film-maker.

Boxoffice prospects for Batman Begins arestellar, but unlikely to soar into the Spider-man stratosphere. Despite a strong cast headed byChristian Bale, there is no marquee actor to draw in audiences and the film'sdark tone and PG-13 violence and imagery are far removed from the upbeat teenconcerns of Peter Parker and pals. Internationally, on the other hand, Warnerhas a chance to better the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher-directed films of thelast Batman series which met withonly moderate success in key markets like France, Germany and Japan. Thanks tobold marketing materials and a movie which delivers on drama and suspensefronts - neither of which were Burton's forte - the studio should again generateknockout returns outside the US.

Thefilm begins in Bhutan where Bruce Wayne (Bale), a Caucasian man in his twenties,is serving a jail sentence. A man of powerful build and fighting skills, hebetters ten men in a brawl and is consequently removed to solitary confinement. Inthe new cell, he is confronted by a mysterious man called Ducard (Neeson) whooffers him the chance to escape and says he can help him overcome his innerdemons if he climbs a nearby mountain.

Duringthis sequence, the film flashes back to Wayne's childhood in Gotham, as thehappy son of billionaire philanthropist Thomas Wayne (Roache). First we seeBruce fall down a disused well in the grounds of the family's grand manor whileplaying with his young friend Rachel Dawes. There he is swarmed by bats untilrescued by his father and thereafter terrified of the creatures.

Second,we see him escort his parents to the opera. However, reminded by the onstagegoings-on of the bat attack, Bruce persuades his parents to leave early andthey are both shot and killed by a thief in the alleyway at the side of thetheatre. His teenage years are haunted by the attack and when his parents'killer makes a plea to get out of prison a decade or so later, Bruce determinesto kill him. He is beaten to it by a henchman of crime boss Carmine Falcone(Wilkinson), but confesses his intentions to a horrified Rachel (Holmes)afterwards. Consumed by his anger, he resolves to leave Gotham and investigatethe criminal mind.

Backin Bhutan several years later, Bruce climbs the aforementioned mountain andarrives at a palace owned by crime lord Ra's Al Ghul (Watanabe) who is Ducard'smaster. Ducard teaches Bruce how to fight, control his anger and guilt, andface his fear of bats, but when he asks him to execute a local criminal, Brucerefuses and in the ensuing fight, the palace is burned down. Ra's Al Ghul iskilled, but Bruce rescues Ducard.

Backin Gotham after seven years away, Bruce determines to fight the corruption thatis eating away at the city. He creates the Batman persona as a symbol to combatevil and creates a costume and weaponry system from supplies owned by his father'scompany now run by Earle (Hauer). Company-employed scientist Lucius Fox(Freeman) even helps him find an armoured car prototype to use as his vehicle.

Withthe assistance of the family butler Alfred (Caine), Bruce builds a base in thecaves underneath the family estate and immediately sets out to destroy Falconeand his crime ring. But he stumbles across a far more sinister plot engineeredby a mysterious villain and his puppet Dr Jonathan Crane (Murphy), who isbringing into Gotham huge quantities of a dangerous hallucogenic drug withwhich he is planning to infect the city's water supplies.

Mostlyenhanced, sometimes overpowered, by a relentless music score from a teaming oftwo composers - Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, Batman Begins aims resolutelyto keep the drama rooted in a version of contemporary reality. Gotham is notthe dark cityscape of Burton's film but a bright gleaming metropolis blendingCGI elements and Chicago, where it was shot. Commissioner Gordon from the comicstrips is instead a ragged cop called Jim Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) youmight see on any primetime crime drama.

Althoughthe images of Batman swooping through the skies are stunning, Nolan falls downin some of the action scenes. The hand to hand combat scenes, shot in close-up,are not easy to follow, while the climactic chase sequence on a monorailthrough the city compares unfavourably with the breathtaking elevated trainsequence from Raimi's Spider-man 2.

Asuper-buff Bale broods effectively as Bruce Wayne aka Batman, while stalwartslike Caine and Freeman inject some much needed humour and media star KatieHolmes makes a surprisingly spirited assistant DA.

Prodcos: Syncopy, Warner BrosPictures.

Worldwidedist: Warner Bros Pictures.

Execprods: Benjamin Melniker &Michael E Uslan.

Prods:Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, LarryJ Franco.

Scr:Christopher Nolan & David SGoyer, from a story by Goyer and characters created by Bob Kane.

DoP:Wally Pfister.

Proddes: Nathan Crowley.

Ed:Lee Smith.

Mus:Hans Zimmer & James NewtonHoward.

Main cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, KatieHolmes, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, TomWilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache