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'Batman': Winged Defeat

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 20, 1997

Like a wounded yeti, "Batman & Robin" drags itself through icicle-heavy sets, dry-ice fog and choking jungle vines, before dying in a frozen heap. Unfortunately, that demise occurs about 20 minutes into the movie, which leaves you in the cold for approximately 106 minutes. Assuming you’ve ventured into this territory, I’d strongly advise you to hibernate.

In Akiva Goldsman’s dramatically frostbitten screenplay, Batman (George Clooney) and his irrepressible sidekicks, Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), must save Gotham City from a double threat: the armored, cold-blooded Mr. Freeze, whose powerful ice gun can chill his opponents to death, and a toxic, vine-festooned temptress called Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), whose kiss is deadlier than a weekend in Chernobyl.

The premise is way below zero, but it’s an opportunity for gothic creativity. For director Joel Schumacher, however, who used to be a window-dresser, movies aren’t about themes, they’re about schemes.

He arranges and choreographs his actors as if they were storefront dummies. He blasts the gothic gloom of Bob Kane’s original "Batman" comic book series into goofy brightness. The requisite flashbacks -- where Batman recalls his painful childhood -- are delivered with a sense of reluctant obligation. He turns the story into a series of cluttered, overextended action pieces. And he inflates every scene with cheap puns, mediocre vamping and special effects that don’t pump you up so much as wear you down.

As with "Batman Forever" (which Schumacher also directed), the only subtext here is a salivating jones for powerful chests and firm buttocks. Says Poison Ivy, upon seeing Batman: "There’s something about an anatomically correct rubber suit that puts fire in a girl’s limbs."

Speaking of anatomically correct, Schumacher has found his perfect mannequin in Clooney. Bruce Wayne is meant to be a haunted orphan, driven to engender civic goodwill by day (as playboy-philanthropist Wayne) and battle criminals to the death by night. Good and evil impulses roil his soul. Not here, girlfriend. Clooney -- bless him -- wouldn’t know psychic baggage if he had to check it at the airport.

His two sidekicks aren’t exactly the deepest spirits that ever jumpstarted a bat bike. O’Donnell plays Robin with high octane perkiness tempered with--more perkiness. And the doughy Silverstone fills Wayne’s manor with nothing but squishy, ineffectual banter. The most compelling battle chez Wayne? Batman finds Robin "impulsive." Robin feels that Batman doesn’t trust him.

"This is no partnership," sputters Robin, after Batman disables his motorcycle to prevent him from chasing Mr. Freeze. "You’re never going to trust me."

Please, supervillains, you mutter quietly. Deliver us from the bland.

Arnold and Uma try, they really do. But despite evil agendas and a barrage of Bat puns ("Everybody chill," says Mr. Freeze; "My garden needs tending," says Poison Ivy flirtatiously to Robin), they never seem powerful or dynamic. Schwarzenegger’s character, for one thing, is always having to recharge his temperature-controlled body system with diamonds; and Thurman’s vampy attempts look tentative and girlish. Of course, they both look great: Mr. Freeze in a frigid blue motif, and Poison Ivy in tendril-ish garments that seem concocted by Jean-Paul Gaultier and the Jolly Green Giant. In Schumacher’s vision that’s all that really counts. But throughout this emptily flashy, meandering fashion show of a summer flick, one conclusion is clear from the start: It’s time to discontinue the "Batman" line.

BATMAN & ROBIN (PG-13) — Contains sexual implications.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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