Houston Chronicle (June 20th, 2005)

BALE HELPS BATMAN GET BEYOND COMIC BOOK KITSCH

Los Angeles – When we last saw Christian Bale, he looked almost dead after losing 64 pounds to play a disturbed insomniac in The Machinist.

Now hearty and hale again, Bale is shouldering new weight – on his body and on-screen. After a respected but low-profile career, the 31-year-old Welsh actor bulked back up to help Warner Bros. reboot a faltering franchise with Batman Begins, opening today.

“I had to get strong, because Batman has no superpowers,” a soft-spoken, bearded Bale said here before a premiere of the fifth Batman film and the first since 1997. “He has to look like he really can do what you see him doing.”

Bale’s casting was almost as surprising as director Tim Burton’s pick of comic actor Michael Keaton for 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns. Though he hit big at13 inSteven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, in recent years the publicity-shy Bale has steered to art-house fare such as Metroland or edgy mainstream work like American Psycho.

His Bat-director, Christopher Nolan, was little different, having carved his own cachet with offbeat thriller Memento. But together, they had the edge Warner wanted to restore to Batman’s credibility after the campy delirium and nippled Bat-suits of director Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

“Burton’s films were extraordinary and idiosyncratic, but you’re going to hit a dead end eventually,” Nolan said. “Our goal was a very classy and sincere film to reinvigorate the cinematic idea of Batman.”

That’s why he went backward, expanding on the Caped Crusader’s origin with a complex tale of familial tragedy, torturous self-discovery, fierce ninja training and conquering of fears by Bruce Wayne, the young heir who becomes a champion of justice years after seeing his parents murdered.

“I think it’s gonna be the first Batman movie that really pleases the hard-core graphic-novel fans but also is something anyone can enjoy as a good story,” said Bale, who crammed on Batman lore after DC Comics sent him stacks of books during production. “It’s closer to the great Batman revival Frank Miller did with Batman: Year One or Alex Ross with Batman: War on Crime.”

That means it’s far from bam-pow mockery.

“To me, you have to pick a side,” Bale said. “Either send it up the way (’60s TV star) Adam West did — because a man running around in a bat suit can be very funny — or take it seriously, which we did. I think the other movies went kind of in-between.”

For their weightier bent, Nolan surrounded Bale with weighty actors. Oscar winners Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman play, respectively,Wayne’s butler, Alfred, and inventor Lucius Fox. Gary Oldman is Police Lt. Gordon, and Liam Neeson is mysterious avenger Henri Ducard.

“It’s a fully realized story now,” Freeman said of the origin. “We all know the bat guy, but we don’t know how he got to be Batman.”

One of the few characters not from the comics is Rachel Dawes. First seen on screen asWayne’s childhood friend, she becomes a crusading attorney in crime-wrackedGothamCity.

For that role, Katie Holmes brings her own baggage, via the furor over her sudden, in-your-face romance with Tom Cruise.

On this day she arrived at the Regent Beverly Wilshire clutching Cruise on his motorbike, which he parked just behind the new Batmobile – an all-terrain minitank – in the hotel driveway. Doffing helmets, the couple obligingly kissed for dazzled guests, then whisked upstairs for Holmes’ interviews.

Though eager to discuss her biggest film yet, Holmes didn’t mind ditching that chore to adore her new man.

“I’m so happy – so happy,” she said with a girlish giggle and a broad smile. “Tom is the most amazing man I’ve ever met – the smartest, the most generous, the best artist.”

Yes, love is grand. But back to weighty matters. Back to Batman.

Holmes says she’s not signed to do another, but Bale says he’ll make up to two more Bat-movies, perhaps with Nolan also on board.

“Actually, we tried to put everything into this one that we wanted to see in a Batman film,” Nolan said. “But I very much enjoyed making it, so I wouldn’t rule out another one.”

Nolan shot “in a very naturalistic style.” He wanted a gritty, down-and-dirty look, unlike the garish theatricality of Schumacher’s films and today’s routine gloss of computer-generated animation.

“Even our swarms of bats came from reality,” Nolan said. “We shot real bats as a basis, then multiplied them by thousands using CG (computer-generated images).”

For Bale, the biggest trick was getting back to fighting form. He had to audition for Batman Begins just six weeks after ending The Machinist at121 pounds”and looking like a toothpick.”

“The worst part was gaining back the weight too fast,” he said. “I went from 121 up to 220, then back down to 190 whilst doing Batman. Not advisable. I felt hideous.”

Given the weight of huge expectations, how does he feel now?

“I really don’t view this as pressure,” Bale said. “After all, we came at this from a different angle. And since the last films weren’t satisfactory, we don’t have to live up to them.”

Having become a Batman comics aficionado, he feels the most optimism for the hero’s loyal readers.

“I believe the true fans will really enjoy this,” Bale said. “Not everyone will love it, but we do. Then the test will be if we get asked back to do it again. If so, I’ll be ready.”

By Bruce Westbrook.