Mr. Warmth Review: 4th time's the charm. George Clooney's Batman is the easiest of the brood to like in another lightweight but fun film. Arnold's Freeze ices the deal.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maybe it took a villain named Mr. Freeze to produce a Batman with any warmth. Cool! After three previous movies and two previous Batmans, it was enough already with the brooding and the posturing. In "Batman & Robin," George Clooney finally gives us a Caped Crusader who is winsome and eminently likable.

And not just likable, either. This guy has a bedside manner that even Clooney's TV alter-ego, Dr. Ross on "ER," should envy. He actually gives Alfred the butler a hug and kiss. This guy you could root for. You could, that is, if you even once believed he was in the slightest danger.

But "Batman & Robin," like its predecessors, is truly a comic book movie, which means that nothing is ever at risk, even when all of Gotham City is threatened with obliteration. "Batman & Robin" is the best in the series since the original. It is a visual delight with inventive special effects and set designs, spectacular costuming and vivid heroes and villains. It's a satisfying spectacle and also a completely uninvolving one, the cinematic version of a beach book.

The movie is truer to comic book sensibilities than any of the earlier ones. Joel Schumacher, who also directed the irritating "Batman Forever," is far more successful in this outing, creating a world in which the antics of superheroes and their adversaries become oddly plausible. In an early scene, Batman and Robin, who have been rocketed into space, make their way back to Earth on makeshift surfboards. Absurd? Of course, but it is the sort of clever improvisation that was routine in the DC Comic books that spawned Batman.

In "Batman & Robin," Gotham City is again drowning in a sea of latex. Outside of your local S&M; shop, you won't see this much form-fitting clothing anywhere. Even more surprising are the number of people the movie has assembled who actually look appealing in these outfits.

As the resident superstar villain, Arnold Schwarzenegger is Mr. Freeze, who threatens to send Gotham City into the Ice Age. Freeze is a microbiologist who, as a result of a laboratory accident, must keep his body at arctic temperatures. Completely bald with glittery, silvery skin and translucent eyes, Freeze's sartorial tastes lean toward air-conditioning units. He looks like the Tin Man on steroids.

Freeze is worse than a psycho: He's in love. He's trying to extort money from Gotham City to finance a cure for his beloved but dying wife, played by supermodel Vendela, who spends the entire movie floating mannequin-like in a water-filled glass container. (Director to supermodel/actress: "In this scene, we need you to act like a mannequin. Can you do that?")

Schwarzenegger has built a career with comic book characterizations, so "Batman & Robin" isn't a stretch for him. He's neither as ominous nor as funny as Jack Nicholson's Joker, but Schwarzenegger is always an imposing presence, and it's amusing hearing him wrap his Austrian accent around his comic lines. He tortures Gotham City with never-ending, only intermittently clever, cold-related puns ("The Iceman cometh!") and with his freeze gun, the best weapon yet in a Batman movie. Parents will want one of these.

Aligning herself with Schwarzenegger is Uma Thurman as slinky Poison Ivy, another good girl turned bad. It is reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer's turn as Cat-woman in "Batman Returns," but Thurman is a delightful vamp who delivers her lines with a Bette Davis-like theatricality. Her Poison Ivy is a bit of an environmental extremist. She wants to kill humankind to make the world safe for flora.

"Batman & Robin" flags when the villains are out of sight, but Schumacher insists on loading the movie with family turmoil in the household of Batman's alter-ego, millionaire Bruce Wayne. Chris O'Donnell is back as Robin and Michael Gough as Alfred the butler. They are joined by Alicia Silverstone as Alfred's willful niece Barbara, who naturally ends up in tights herself as a feminist Batgirl.

Robin continues to whine about his benefactor's authority ("This is why Superman works alone," Batman huffs to himself), Barbara makes speeches about the class system on Alfred's behalf, and Alfred, who may be dying, bemoans a long-lost brother.

But Clooney manages to keep even these scenes afloat with consistent good humor and unforced charm. He has off-loaded the angst of previous Batmen Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer, making this installment the most sprightly of the line. Unless "Batman & Robin" fails miserably at the box office, bet on the franchise continuing. If so, here's hoping this Batman returns.

'Batman & Robin'

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman and Alicia Silverstone

Directed by Joel Schumacher

Released by Warner Brothers

Rated PG-13 (comic book violence and double entendres)

Sun Score: ** 1/2

* = poor

** = fair

*** = good

**** = excellent

Pub Date: 6/20/97

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