Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Watching “Batman & Robin,” (** 1/2 out of ****) the fourth cinematic outing in the Warner Brothers’ franchise, is like sitting through a Broadway musical staged as a series of wrestling matches. Batman (George Clooney of “From Dusk Till Dawn”) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell of “Batman Forever) are poised in one corner of the ring on the side of justice. The time around the Boy Wonder chafes at his second banana status. He wants a super hero car and his own signal light! Batman grimaces: “That’s why Superman works alone.” Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone of “Clueless”) is the latest recruit to the Caped Crusader’s clan. Uncle Alfred’s bodacious niece, she loves to race motorcycles. Opposite our heroes and heroines in the other corner are Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger of “True Lies”), a human stalagmite dressed like a bug lamp, and the venomous botanical Botticelli-like Venus dubbed Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman of “Pulp Fiction”) whose lips carry a toxic kiss. Audiences get to ogle these overdressed fiends as they battle Batman and Robin amid several fabled settings for two hours in far-fetched situations. The combat scenes suffer from a choreographed look that detracts from the spontaneity of the fighting. Indeed, everything about “Batman & Robin” is as staged and predictable as a wrestling match.

Nevertheless, “Batman & Robin” qualifies as ideal summer fare. This surefire formula has been served up once again with a high quota of action but relatively little violence. Nobody should leave this movie warped enough to imitate any of the stunts. While surpassing “Batman Forever,” “Batman & Robin” sports few of the vicious vibes of the mean-spirited Tim Burton & Michael Keaton originals. The lively Akiva Goldsman screenplay plumbs the depths of a DC comic book. After all, who watches a Batman movies for its fine, subtle, literary features? The screenplay exists as an excuse to catapult Batman into a string of battles with his larger-than-life adversaries. Like some earlier Batman fiends, these new villains are zombies that have defied death.

Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) stomps around in a subzero cryogenic suit that resembles the RoboCop rig minus the helmet. Freeze survives on diamonds to fuel his cold suit. Meanwhile, he is cooking up a formula to cure his frozen wife of a terminal disease called McGregor’s Syndrome. Goldsman must have watched some of those British Peter Cushing movies about mad scientists and their dead wives. Interestingly, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Gough of “Horror Hospital”) falls victim to the same illness. If one villain were not enough, Goldsman whistles up a second, the felonious flora known as Poison Ivy who deploys her sire charms to incite rivalry between the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder. Again, the wrestling image of tag teams comes to mind for “Batman & Robin.”

Mind you, the villains are annoying but not odious. Although bald-headed, gimlet-eyed, and blue from head to toe, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t seem very dangerous. His dialogue mixes puns about frigidity with synonyms for the word ‘cold.’ “Chill!” roars Mr. Freeze as he wields an ice gun that turns the police into icicles. Despite his insane laughter and hideous plans, Mr. Freeze never really harms anybody. The heroes manage to thaw out Freeze’s victims before they die so his villainy is strictly cosmetic.
And Poison Ivy’s is essentially no different.

“Batman & Robin” emerges more as a triumph of set design, costuming, and elaborate visual effects over narrative storytelling. The breath-taking, computer-generated baroque sets of Gotham City radiate a surreal quality that is enhanced by the cotton-candy colored fluorescence of the cinematography. Each shot in the movie resembles a panel out of a Batman comic book. Scores of Dutch-tilted MTV-style camera angles punctuate the action to heighten the tension and suspense. The special effects are so dazzling that you will find yourself overwhelmed by them.

Director Joel Schumacher succeeds admirably in keeping the plot from getting in the way of either the special efforts or the action. “Batman & Robin” is as calculated a summer commodity as brand name triple-decker hamburgers with all the fixings. That’s the kind of hamburger that people want so they keep putting the same things in them. The same applies to the “Batman” franchise. Entertaining, clever, and shrewd at every turn, “Batman & Robin” succeeds for the same reasons that other “Batman” movies faltered. The Dynamic Duo are bulletproof! Suspense doesn’t exist in this lavishly produced epic. No matter how closely death hovers over our heroes, they escape without a scratch.

Making the death-defying obstacles bigger each time helps but only prolongs the certainty that they will survive. Basically, the heroes are getting out of tight spots far too easily. Batman’s suit conceals more gadgets than James Bond’s tuxedo. Every gadget has been ingeniously contrived to get Batman out of his predicaments. Each device works without fail every time. Our heroes don’t even break a sweat, so why should we? The best way to watch “Batman & Robin” is to let the absurdities flow over you. Nevertheless, the filmmakers are shrewd. Between the high octane action sequences, a dozen allusions are made about ‘family values.’ Bruce Wayne shares a tearful moment, for example, with his bed-ridden butler Alfred. Despite its knockabout tactics, “Batman & Robin” endorses the family. ‘Family values’ play a crucial part in the narrative. Batman & Robin quarrel and compete with each other in the film. Eventually, Alfred intervenes and resolves the tensions between our heroes. When the Dynamic Duo reciprocate the trust that solidifies them as a family, they defeat their adversaries.

The best part of “Batman & Robin” is the subplot that has Alfred ailing. Aside from paunchy Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon, English actor Michael Gough is the only holdover from the original Keaton “Batman.” Equipped with George Burns’ eyeglasses, Alfred furnishes the only genuine warmth in the film. Although the main plot concerns saving the world from Mr. Freeze’s ice-capades, Alfred’s imminent death weaves the path of hero and villain into a neat, slushy outcome.

George Clooney of NBC-TV’s “ER” appears well suited to wear the cape and cowl. His chin and jaw are square enough to accommodate the role. Clooney plays Bruce Wayne/Batman straight. He delivers each line of dialogue with persuasive conviction. While his Batman is neither as ruthless as Keaton’s or as suave as Kilmer’s, Clooney brings a compelling, no-nonsense virility to the role.

Schumacher provides more than enough style to get “Batman & Robin” over its alarming lack of substance. Schumacher inherited the franchise from Tim Burton who bailed after “Batman Returns.” As Hollywood movie directors rank, Schumacher boasts an impressive string of successes. He helmed “Batman Forever,” “A Time to Kill,” “Flatliners,” “The Lost Boys,” “D.C. Cab,” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Schumacher keeps “Batman & Robin” moving at a whirlwind pace. At two and a half hours in length, this “Batman” entry flies. He has ushered Batman away from the dark side and into the light. The worse thing that you can say about “Batman & Robin” is that it is a rough and tumble fashion show masquerading as an action movie. Nobody really gets hurt who doesn’t deserve their punishment. Although Schumacher generates a certain amount of adrenalin here and there, it is primarily about showing what the heroes and villains do rather than the consequences of their actions. Juveniles should be efficiently distracted by these antics, the obstreperous soundtrack and the heady visuals. Discriminating adults should be able to tolerate “Batman & Robin” for what it is a summer movie joyride.