The Dark Knight
I’m not afraid to dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight in both extolling on “The Dark Knight’s” considerable virtues as well as pointing out its’ not-so-invisible flaws. First things first, however- this is NOT, as many have been prone to saying, the greatest superhero movie of all-time; that’s the hype talking. That mantle is still held by the likes of “Spider-Man 2,” “Superman: The Movie,” and this summer’s “Iron Man,” depending on one’s mood. This seventh big-screen film for the Caped Crusader is, however, somewhere in the top 5 of that list (like, say, #4 🙂 ), to say nothing of the best “Batman” movie ever made- it’s too brilliantly acted, conceived, and altogether executed to be otherwise, even if a little more trimming around the edges by director/co-writer Christopher Nolan and editor Lee Smith might have made the film’s 2 1/2 hour run time a little less apparent. But that’s a minor quibble that’ll mean nothing to the people calling this film nothing less than the Second Coming of cinema. That goes for critics- who can at least generally be counted on for a little objectivity- and fanboys alike.
I don’t want to punch too big a hole in this boat though- it sails with the best of them. Starting with an opening bank robbery (first seen in front of IMAX presentations of “I Am Legend”) that sets the tone for the entire film, and makes for a no-holds-barred introduction for Heath Ledger’s The Joker, presented not as the Clown Prince of Crime in Jack Nicholson’s incarnation of the character for Tim Burton’s 1989 film but as a raging sociopath, who’ll hire regular thugs with promises of cash but execute them just as quickly as they’re not useful to him anymore. The scene is comparable to the heist in Michael Mann’s “Heat” in scope and dramatic punch, which influenced this film in more ways than one. Immediately, we see the stakes- The Joker is out for blood, and not playing by the rules…which is part of what’ll give this film its’ energy. We sense immediately that Gotham’s finest- even noble Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman)- might not be up to the task. You know who that leaves…
But will Batman be able to tame The Joker? He’s got problems of his own, like fanboys dressing up like him and showing up at his collars (like an early-movie drug bust with a cameo from “Batman Begins'” Scarecrow, still played by Cillian Murphy) and the cops and citizens of Gotham labeling him as a vigilante. It’s enough to do some harm to an ego like billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale). It doesn’t help to see his life-long sweetie Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing “Begins'” Katie Holmes) smooching it up with the new, hopeful DA in town Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), whose passion towards stopping crime gives even Wayne hope that he might be able to hang up the Batsuit in time. But Wayne’s mentors, the family butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne Enterprises head honcho/technology expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), know the city still needs its’ Dark Knight; they just hope he continues to make the right choices along the way.
Choice plays a significant role in “The Dark Knight.” Good vs. evil of course, but more importantly, the choices we make in service of one or the other. The Joker is a wild card, spinning Gotham into chaos, even forcing the toughest choices to be made by genuinely good people like Dent and Gordon. Working from a screenplay he cowrote with his brother Jonathan (from a story he conceived with “Begins” cowriter David S. Goyer), Chris Nolan asks many of the same moral questions he’s been probing in non-“Batman” films, from his 2001 breakthrough “Memento” to the underappreciated cop thriller “Insomnia” and his 2006 magician drama “The Prestige.” How far can obsession lead a person off the path? Is atonement for past mistakes possible by action alone? But what if a morally-questionable choice means the difference between life-and-death for genuinely good people? He also continues to probe the nature of what makes a hero, and more importantly, a symbol that people can believe in, that he began in “Batman Begins.” It’s a concept considered by many of the best superhero movies (the last two “Spider-Man” films, “Iron Man”), and it’s been a life-force for his “Batman” films, which are driven by such character-driven concerns more than the spectacle that drove both Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s earlier “Batman” franchise.
Make no mistake, though. After starting off with small-scale character studies, Nolan’s become a master of large-scale excitement. As visualized through long-time collaborator Wally Pfister’s lens, Chicago makes an ideally gritty backdrop for Nolan’s Gotham City. Rather than focus on the elaborate production design of the earlier “Batman” films, Nolan takes the action of his movies into the shadows of the city, especially during a riveting late-night police ambush on the streets that rivals anything seen in action standards like “Die Hard,” “Hard Boiled,” “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Leon the Professional,” “Heat,” or “Casino Royale.” Fulfilling a 15-year dream, he shot four of the film’s major sequences (including the aforementioned bank robbery and police ambush sequences) using the massive IMAX cameras, a bold choice that pays off handsomely even on 35mm, which is how I first saw the film. The result is an eye-popping, but realistically-designed, visual marvel aided by brilliant sound work and a propulsive score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard that follows the story to the dark side while capturing the very real emotions the actors find in their characters.
The acting in “The Dark Knight” represents an embarrassment of riches- the only other superhero movie with such a collectively superb cast is, well, “Iron Man.” Bale finds the conflicted soul of his Bruce Wayne/Batman. Not so much haunted by guilt about his parents as longing for normalcy, Bale nonetheless dares to make the character unsympathetic and driven by obsession to do right, even while he’s internally wishing Gotham City would cut him some slack and appreciate the work he’s doing. While spending his spare time in more prestige pics like Nolan’s “The Prestige” and Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn” in between stints in the cape, Bale keeps getting better and bolder as an actor with each performance, which is saying something for a person who first really broke out in adulthood with his role in “American Psycho.” It’ll be interesting to see what such an intense performer can bring to the fourth “Terminator” film next year, but I guess that’s what they call “range” in the business.
As Wayne’s support team, Caine and Freeman bring the same wily professionalism to Alfred and Fox in “Begins,” although there are times when they’re forced to ask the tough questions of their boss and themselves in what will best serve Batman’s cause. As Gordon, Oldman continues to shine in a good guy role that’s growing richer and more compelling with each movie- not easy when you’re playing what’s fundamentally a goodie two-shoes role, but then again, Oldman’s a skilled actor who’s played memorable characters in films as varied as “JFK,” “Harry Potter,” “Leon the Professional,” and even his wonderfully hammy role in “The Fifth Element.” As the new people in the main cast, Eckhart and Gyllenhaal find themselves going in different directions. Eckhart (the name to the corrupt cop in Burton’s “Batman” back in 1989, coincidentally enough) is superb as Dent, bringing this harbinger of hope to life with a politician’s swagger and a humanitarian’s optimism, which makes his late-film transformation into the dreaded Two-Face (great makeup effects, by the way; dramatic and scary-as-Hell) all the more heartbreaking, and making Batman and Gordon’s decision all the more heroic towards both character without selling either of them out.
As Rachel Dawes, Gyllenhaal is a problem spot. It’s not her performance- she has an easy chemistry with both Bale and Eckhart that sells both relationships- exactly, but it was pretty jarring to see a new face in such a prominent role. She did exactly what the role required, and did it pretty damn well (as she has in roles as varied as “World Trade Center,” “Secretary,” and “Stranger Than Fiction”), but even though Katie Holmes herself was pretty standard in the role in “Begins,” seeing the first film a couple of days before seeing “Dark Knight” made the change all the more obvious, and made me wonder whether they shouldn’t have just written the character out of this film altogether. It was a little too much of a distraction for me.
And then, there’s the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. Simply, believe the hype. This Joker would rather kill you with a knife than make you keel over with laughter like Nicholson’s did. And that’s exactly how it needed to be. Any attempt to emulate Nicholson’s iconic performance would have paled to the original. This Joker is dangerous, frightening, and mesmerizing. I quoted one of Nicholson’s iconic lines from his performance at the start of this review- Ledger’s Joker IS the Devil. This is a character to inhabit your nightmares- an iconic supervillain brought to vivid, astonishing life, and a crowning achievement for a young actor whose brilliant career (peppered with similarly-rebellious roles in films as varied as “10 Things I Hate About You,” “The Patriot,” and “A Knight’s Tale” to go with more dramatic triumphs such as “The Brothers Grimm,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “I’m Not There”) was cut far too short as a result of the strain this performance brought him. That said, he does have one more gift for fans waiting in the wings for next year courtesy of his “Brothers Grimm” director Terry Gilliam, whose film “The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus” Ledger was filming when Ledger died in January at 28; thanks to a little imagination of his own, Gilliam is finishing the film with three actors- none other than Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell- completing Ledger’s role in tribute. Until then, though, Ledger fans can savor the actor’s extraordinary skill as it is on display in “The Dark Knight,” a haunting experience of a film that is everything a mainstream movie can be- exciting, daring, provocative- except perfect. A film this good, though, I can live with imperfection. I can also admit it…which is more than I can say for other fanboys. 🙂