The franchise starts to shake under Schumacher's influence. Watchable, but barely.
Tim Burton produced a dark, gothic version of Batman for the big screen in 1989, wiping the slate clean of the campy television series with its Kerpow!s and Bif!s. He directed the cunningly titled sequel, Batman Returns and pulled off a film nearly as good as the first. Then something went wrong, horribly, horribly wrong. The reins of the franchise were handed over to Joel Schumacher, who officially has no clue. Elements of Burton's darker, frankly more intelligent stylings remain, but they've been joined by incongruous splashes of neon and elements of saturated camp that permeated the T.V. shows. The result is messy, but not yet the nadir that Batman & Robin was.
Michael Keaton leaves the scarred psyche of the Dark Knight and Val Kilmer slips into the vacant cape. Was this a good choice? Frankly we'll never know as Lee & Janet Batchler's story is so insipid and bland that Kilmer has very little to do apart from run through the motions of some horribly uninspiring dialogue before the next chase scene. Co-credits for the screenplay go to Akiva Goldsman, responsible for Lost In Space. Draw your own conclusions, although to be fair looking at leaked earlier drafts of the script give it a darker tint than the vision Schumacher unleashed on us.
A superhero story is nothing without it's villains, and for this round we have Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and The Riddler (Jim Carrey). Two-Face is an ex-district attorney, hideously acid-scarred in an attempted courtroom breakout despite Batty's best efforts, now driven to a multiple personality disorder and an urge to steal lots of stuff and kill Batman while doing it. The Riddler, or rather Edward Nygma was a scientist working for Wayne enterprises on a device to project images directly into the brain before Bruce Wayne (Batman's alter ego, if you've been living under a rock) himself decides to deep-six the project, saying it raises too many ethical questions. This angers the nutty professor. On testing his prototype, Nygma discovers a handy side effect - it allows him to utilise the viewers' brainwaves to boost his own intelligence. Quickly the two team up, with Two-Face stealing enough capital to finance the foundation of NygmaTech's enterprise to have one of his boxes in every home. This seems to be achieved over the course of two days.
As part of Two-Face's enforced charity drive, he uses an oversized bomb to threaten the audience of a circus out of their dough. The bomb is heroically moved to safety by the acrobat act of the Flying Grayson's, but Two-Face guns them down with the exception of the youngest, Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell). Now filled with the need for vengeance against Two-Face, but with no family to help him Bruce takes him under his wing, so to speak. This is the most interesting aspect of the film, drawing parallels with the genesis of the Dark Knight himself and seeing if Bruce can divert the young, headstrong Grayson from becoming as dysfunctional as he is. It's a good, solid plotline that's leagues ahead of the rest of the story which never really gains cohesion.
O'Donnell also puts in the best performance in a film that occasionally can't seem to decide whether it's going to focus on the bleaker aspects or the cheesy camp overacting of Two-Face and The Riddler. Grayson, or Robin as he is eventually known is the only character with any well-thought out and credible motivation and O'Donnell shows the characters journey from rage-filled punk to proper trainee-superhero with some degree of skill. He's assisted with advice from Bruce's faithful butler Alfred, with Michael Gough putting in another stately performance.
Can't have a Hollywood movie without a love interest, no matter how tacked on it has to be. And I'll be damned if this isn't one of the least necessary and most lifeless one's I've seen outside of Sweet Home Alabama. Nicole Kidman takes the role of Dr. Chase Meridian, wooed by Bruce but obsessed with Batman. The idea has a lot of potential, as I can't recall the last time I saw a love triangle with only two people involved. It's a pity the dialogue is so flat and lifeless that there's no sparkle between either of the Batman/Meridian or Wayne/Meridian pairings. The only time the pair have much to say of any consequence is in a rather pointless tale of one of Wayne's repressed memories of his parents funeral, which really doesn't have the significance that the laborious build up implies it does. No sooner has Bruce bared his soul than the merry gang of villains show up and kidnap Chase, blow up the Batcave and leave Bruce with a final riddle to solve, leading him and a now properly suited-up Robin to attempt a rescue.
Any film like this can only be as strong as the villain in it. Frankly, Two-Face and The Riddler are awful. Two-Face has creepiness potential, and his multiple personality disorder allows for some good scenarios. His gimmick of being in two minds about everything and tossing a coin to decide his actions is a good one, as is both of his personalities having separate girlfriends (Spice, Debi Mazar and Sugar, Drew Barrymore). However, Tommy Lee Jones must be familiar with Jim Carrey's work and decided to try and out-Carrey him, and the two bounce off each other idiotically gurning and gesticulating, mangling words for supposed comic effect.
It's classic Carrey, in that it's the same tricks that Carrey always does in everything and frankly it's tiresome. The Riddler looks like a clown to begin with but acting like a clown as well is hardly the way to inspire fear in the audience. Despite his continual protestations of his genius there's never any sense that this jester will ever be able to defeat Batman, which doesn't make the movie's conclusion nail-biting.
There was still a chance of producing a decent tale from these parts, but it's stitched together in such a random and haphazard way that it rarely feels like a thought out story arc, more a collection of occurrences linked together with all too frequent chase scenes, occasionally happening with no explanation at all apart from something not blowing up for a while.
One of the more noteworthy fights, and it looks terribly tame is these days of mutant hyperkilling and wire-fu, involves Robin fighting against a gang of street-punks bizarrely clad in neon, with neon weapons too. It's a bizarre sight, and lead by no other than our pal Don 'The Dragon' Wilson. The film may have been much better had they concentrated on Donnie boy as the lead villain rather than the overblown pair they settled on, at least we might be treated to a proper fight. The scene is blatantly lifted from Don's earlier 1993 Rage: Ring Of Fire 2 and Dr. Johnny Woo's valiant struggle with the Shadow Warriors, and it's good to see the legend that is our boy Don acknowledged in the mainstream Hollywood scene.
It's another film that reeks of missed opportunity. In fact, no, it reeks of Carrey's overacting shenanigans and shame on Tommy Lee Jones for not resisting the urge to out-stupid him. It spoils what could have been an interesting look at the origins of Batman lived through Robin, and show how Wayne's healing process has progressed over his years as the Dark Knight. Elements of this are still there, and largely they're still enjoyable, but the villains are so uninspired and hammy that it sinks the rest of the movie.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
Tommy Lee Jones (Two-Face/Harvey Dent)
Jim Carrey (The Riddler/Edward Nygma)
Nicole Kidman (Dr. Chase Meridian)
Chris O'Donnell (Robin/Dick Grayson)
Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth)
Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon)
Drew Barrymore (Sugar)
Debi Mazar (Spice)