Let's let the bat out of the bag up front: "Batman Forever" is terrific pop movie-making.
With a new Batman, a new director, a new sidekick, a new Batmobile but the same dark and glossy look, it's as slick and amusing a two-hour ride as you're likely to find in the movies this summer, not perfect but perfect fun. Jim Carrey, as the Riddler, deserves a special Oscar in the category "Best Performance by a Guy in a Red Fright Wig."
Though the original director, Tim Burton, is around to produce, and the film has the same $100 million mock-gothic comic noir look, Joel Schumacher seems to have a great deal more fun than Burton ever had. He seems to actually enjoy spending other people's money. He also has a zingier grasp of narrative technique: Though the plot is the least important thing in the film, it's sturdy enough a chassis to keep the vehicle whistling along at near warp speed.
Still, Schumacher has his limits. He's a good storyteller, but look at his work ("Flatliners," "The Lost Boys," "Falling Down") and you don't see a natural instinct for action. Thus, when the bullets start flying and people start swinging on those ever-helpful ropes that seem to be the distinguishing feature of the Gotham landscape, Schumacher tends to lose control and the action becomes so chaotic, it's unclear. He hasn't the real professional's gift for staging elaborate sequences with utter clarity and exhilarating rhythms.
The center of the film, however, is Val Kilmer as the Caped Crusader himself. This was an excellent move. As estimable a screen presence as Michael Keaton was, Keaton was always working against his natural instincts. Intuitive, flamboyant, ebullient, he had to tone it way down; his Batman was basically an impersonation, and the actor seemed uncomfortable keeping his leprechaun's face immobile most of the time. Kilmer, however, has a natural reserve and elegance and a frosty dignity that's key to the role. When his eyes are isolated by the mask, they shine with fierce power and anger. He seems smart and dangerous, and when he dons that (even more inflated) rubberized muscle shirt, it doesn't seem to dwarf him; it feels natural.
Plot? Hardly. Ex-D.A. Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), half his face melted into the complexion of a boiled lobster by a glassful of acid he blames Batman for, has turned into Harvey Two-Face, criminal mastermind and nut case extraordinaire. His mission is simple: to kill Batman, and he's ripping the city to shreds to do it. Soon he's joined Ed Nygma (Carrey) as a disaffected firee from Wayne Enterprises, who hates Batman's other half, the Bruce Wayne half. An interesting conceit: an enemy for each half of Batman.
It gets psychologically juicier. In a provocative way, "Batman Forever" is a meditation on the theme of doubleness. Each of the main characters has two opposing halves; each lives in crazed tension between the two of them. Only Two-Face wears his doubleness on the outside, depending on which profile Schumacher chooses to film.
Kilmer has enough brooding pain to sell the movie's darker subtext; even as all these people are trying to kill him, even as Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) is trying to seduce him, and even as a young circus acrobat (Chris O'Donnell) whose parents have been killed exactly as Bruce's were all those years ago is trying to bond with him under the nom de guerre Robin, his fundamental focus is on his own dual nature. He's trying to find the answer to the darkest question of all: Why is it Bruce Wayne needs Batman so desperately?
Certain points fail to register and develop: At its worst, the film feels too full of undeveloped ideas. The Riddler's outer personality, for example, Ed Nygma (E. Nygma, duh), has invented some sort of mind-television, whose significance to the plot the story is quite unable to make clear. Robin is well-played by Chris O'Donnell, but his addition to the cast seems more a case of marketing demographics -- to get a hot young bod into a cast that is otherwise completely pushing 40 if it hasn't already pushed through it -- than a dramatic necessity. Meridian is an odd character: She's sexually voracious at first and seems initially to be a femme fatale, but as the movie progresses, her character softens into sentimentality.
Finally, though Jones dominates the first half of the film, by the second half he's come to seem irrelevant as Carrey just keeps getting wild and wilder. No force on Earth can restrain him. He may actually be an alien, I've decided, whose chemicals are off a different table of elements and whose face is built from a different molecular structure. If it had nothing else, "Batman Forever" would get by on this guy's Eveready battery of talent. Fortunately, it's got a lot of other dark pleasures. There's enough Batman to go around -- twice.
Starring Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Released by Warner Bros.
PG-13 (comic violence, erotic suggestion)