Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Batman: Under the Red Hood" (2010)

Starring Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles and John DiMaggio
Written by Judd Winick
Directed by Brandon Vietti

These DC Universe animated features have been pretty up and down, some decent, some not so much.  "Batman: Under the Red Hood," however, is easily the best of them all.  Excellent vocal performances and a top-notch script from Batman comics writer Judd Winick makes this one a more than worthy addition to the Batman franchise.

The film starts years prior, with Batman (Bruce Greenwood) racing toward a warehouse where the Joker (John DiMaggio) has kidnapped young Robin.  Unfortunately, he doesn't make it in time, and Robin is killed in the blast when Joker detonates a bomb.  Batman is crushed, and considers it his greatest failure.  Five years later, a mysterious new force arrives in Gotham.  Calling himself the Red Hood (Jensen Ackles), this new player begins to wage war on Gotham's criminal underworld by taking it over piece by piece, and killing anyone who gets in his way.  Batman takes on the investigation, aided by Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), the original Robin.

As Red Hood continues to cut and shoot his way through Black Mask's criminal empire, Black Mask becomes increasingly desperate, and makes the same mistake that Ra's al Ghul made at the beginning of the film: he trusts the Joker to do the dirty work for him.  But since the Joker can't be trusted, chaos ensues, and revelations will be made about the Red Hood's identity as he engineers a final encounter between Batman, himself and the dangerous Joker.

This is the first DC Universe feature that, to me, felt like it wasn't missing large portions of material in order to fit the 75-minute running time imposed by the studio.  It feels like a cohesive whole, with compelling characters and excellent action sequences.  This is definitely a well made, entertaining Batman adventure. 

Bruce Greenwood does well as the Caped Crusader.  He's able to bring good emotion through that gravely voice, at times reminding me of the best Batman ever: Kevin Conroy.  I know I've said this before in other reviews, but Conroy still has yet to be topped in his portrayal of the Dark Knight, whether in live action or animated form.  Greenwood is a worthy successor here, striking just the right balance of gruff.

Jensen Ackles is also fine as Red Hood, using his excellent comic timing often on display in "Supernatural" to breathe a little life into Hood, but also bringing good emotional heft to the performance when it counts. 

The real standout of the cast, however, is John DiMaggio's Joker.  Sort of a mixture of interpretations, he voices the character like a bridge between Mark Hamill's excellent take in "Batman: The Animated Series" and Heath Ledger's in "The Dark Knight."  Throw in a design that seems to evoke the Jack Nicholson version from 1989's "Batman" and you've got yourself a sort of conglomerate Joker of the last two decades.  The thing that makes it all work, however, is the sheer menace that DiMaggio's performance exudes.  This is a dangerous, utterly untrustworthy Joker - the best way to portray this character, if you ask me.  He's not some harmless clown, as he can sometimes be portrayed, but a true, sick and dangerous individual. 

The animation in "Under the Red Hood" is pretty solid.  None of these DC Universe features will ever win any Oscars in that department, but it's got it where it counts.  Unlike the "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies" movie, which suffered from low framerates, movement is rather fluid in "Under the Red Hood."  An early sequence with Batman and Nightwing taking on an Amazo android in Gotham's shipyards is really well done, as is a later fight where Batman defends Red Hood from a gang of assassins. 

So overall, "Under the Red Hood" takes the cake as the best of the DC Universe features.  A solid voice cast with an outstanding Joker performance from John DiMaggio, great animation and a really good, coherent script make this one a winner.