Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight

This Joker is Wild

The hype machine has been working overtime on this sequel to the rebooted DC Comics franchise that started two years ago with Batman Begins. Ever since the last scene of that film which teased the arrival of number one Bat Baddie The Joker, fans have been frothing at the mouth. Add to that the apparent stunt casting of Brokeback Mountaineer Heath Ledger and the return of director Christopher Nolan (Memento) , and you've got something worth watching. I'm happy to report that even though The Dark Knight isn't the greatest superhero film I've ever seen, Ledger is definitely the best super villain.

A clown-faced whack job calling himself The Joker (Ledger) is stealing mob money from banks in Gotham City. With an agenda of chaos on his mind, this creepy criminal attracts the attention of Batman (Christian Bale), who may be the only one capable of stopping him. Meanwhile, alter ego Bruce Wayne vies for the affections of former love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is currently seeing star District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). All three are on a collision course with The Joker, who wishes to destroy anything that will bring peace to Gotham and crime to a standstill.

Everything you've heard about the late Ledger's performance is absolutely true. His take on the maniacal Joker is excellent, from his disturbing laugh, to the constant licking of his lips, to his love for sharp objects. He really seems to be totally insane, yet smart and controlled at the same time. His introduction perfectly captures how dangerous this guy is, yet punctuates it with a sick joke that you can't help but laugh at ("Wanna see a magic trick?").

Bale and company are all very good, but since Ledger steals every scene he's in, we anxiously await his return. Nonetheless, Eckhart (No Reservations) is strong (and gets stronger) as the ambitious Dent, while Gyllenhaal (Stranger Than Fiction) surpasses her predecessor, Katie Holmes. Backup is provided by greats Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. Even the small parts are well-filled by familiar faces Eric Roberts and Anthony Michael Hall. Nolan must have some kind of pull.

Despite all the acting clout, it's fortunate that there is a compelling, well written story here, that keeps our interest and moves along at a nice pace. The movie has lots of action, but characters are allowed to breathe and develop and we care about what happens to each of them. Nolan also makes it abundantly clear that anyone could live or die at any time. This really ups the stakes and the feeling of tension we get is very real.

My only complaint is that at two-and-a-half hours, the movie begins to feel long. Things develop in the third act that, while compelling, should have been saved for another movie. As a result, The Dark Knight suffers from "too many villains in one movie" syndrome that plagued the previous series. It is still a very good movie, but tighten up this one loose end and I think this film may have eclipsed my favorite superhero flick, the original Superman (1978). As it is now, no suck luck.

Not that anyone will care. This movie is already a guaranteed success, which will mean another sequel. I hope Nolan can continue to raise the bar as he has done here, and we get another thrilling excursion into crime-ridden Gotham City. Batman outfitter Freeman gives us a hint of what's to come when he tells Bale that his new Batsuit is effective against dogs "and cats."

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