Dark Knight, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/17/08 00:08:10

"Bat Into Hell"
5 stars (Awesome)

When you consider that it is based on a property that has been enormously popular throughout the world for over seven decades, is the direct sequel to a hugely popular film that was a hit with both critics and audiences, serves as the latest entry in the filmography of one of the most talked-about filmmakers working today and contains the last full performance from a much-admired actor who tragically passed away long before his time, it is not surprising to discover that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the latest big-screen adventure of the brooding superhero Batman after Nolan‘s triumphant 2005 franchise reboot “Batman Begins,” is one of the most heavily promoted and eagerly anticipated films to come around in a long time--even the legendary hype that surrounded the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” pales in comparison to what is happening now. The problem with such intense hype, of course, is that it sets up expectations that are all but impossible to fulfill--most of them never come close to living up to the anticipation (“The Phantom Menace” being the most obvious example) and even the better films that have found themselves part of this phenomenon (such as Peter Jackson’s wonderful remake of “King Kong” or the recent “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) have had trouble living up to their advanced billing in the eyes of many viewers. Amazingly, not only does “The Dark Knight” live up to the expectations set by its perfect storm of publicity, it manages to wholly exceed them. Simply put, this is a great work of contemporary cinema and is easily the most artistically significant film ever made that has also inspired its own fast-food pizza tie-in.

Set roughly a year or so after the events of “Batman Begins,” which ended with the Caped Crusader, a.k.a. brooding billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) saving one and all from the diabolical plans of Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow and the downfall of crime boss Carmine Falcone (and if none of these names ring a bell, you should probably drop everything and watch “Batman Begins” right now--partially because this installment thankfully does not pause to rehash any backstory from the earlier film and partially because it is such a great movie), “The Dark Knight” gives us the sight of a Gotham City that is actually on the cusp of hopefulness thanks to the inspiration brought to the people by the presence of its new defender. On the one hand, some of this inspiration--such as a group of civilian vigilantes who try to thwart dangerous criminals in their own homemade Batsuits--turns out to be more trouble than it is worth as Batman often winds up having to both save them and stop the bad guys. On the other, while the police force and the district attorney’s office are both still rife with corruption from within, their respective leaders--the incorruptible cop Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the city’s fearless new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a public servant brave enough to simultaneously put no less than 549 defendants on trial in order to make a point and keep the streets safe--are inspiring enough to cause the battle-weary Bruce to contemplate giving up his sideline gig for good and get back to a normal life, one that hopefully includes the renewal of his on-again/off-again relationship with assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). Making that last item a little more difficult is the fact that Rachel, who knows Bruce’s secret and who can’t deal with his reckless willingness to put his life on the line every night, is now dating Dent.

Of course, such feelings of hope and change rarely last too long in Gotham City and as the film opens, we bear witness to the spectacular robbery of a mob-controlled bank in which one of the masked perpetrators methodically knocks off each one of his accomplices as soon as their respective tasks are completed. This is, of course, the Joker (Heath Ledger), a purely psychotic criminal with no known name, no known past and no known desire other than to create chaos wherever he goes. After pulling off the robbery, he crashes an underground confab of Gotham’s criminal leaders and chides them for appearing to be weak and soft in the eyes of the citizens. His solution? Kill Batman--a task that the others uneasily hire him to perform. Of course, that would be too easy and not nearly enough fun from the Joker’s point-of-view and he instead lets loose with an orgy of violence that includes the murders of some of the faux-Batmen and the planned public assassinations of the three people responsible for the ongoing mob trial, acts that he claims will stop as soon as Batman reveals his true identity to one and all. However, as things go on and shocking events occur, it quickly becomes apparent that while Joker may profess to be a complete anarchist who only wants to mess with the status quo (“Do I look like a guy with a plan?”), it soon becomes terrifyingly obvious that all of his brutal mayhem does have a point to it--to cause everyone in Gotham from heroes like Batman and Harvey Dent to ordinary civilians to reject their idealistic notions about themselves and act in ways diametrically opposed to how they see themselves in the name of self-preservation.

In other words, “The Dark Knight” isn’t so much a bubblegum superhero saga on the level of “Iron Man” or “The Incredible Hulk” as it is a series of meditations on the ambiguities found within such theoretical absolutes as good and evil, the burdens (physical, emotional and psychological) that fall upon those who take it upon themselves to stand up for what is right when everyone else is perfectly willing to sit down and the state of a post 9/11 America so petrified with fear of the unknown and of what might happen that we have begun to inflict just as much damage upon ourselves as any other entity has done. (The fact that Joker is referred to several times as a terrorist is only one of the elements signifying that I am not just trying to force a connection here.) That Nolan and his co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan would offer viewers such a morally and emotionally complex narrative in the first place at a time when such things are frowned upon by financiers and audiences alike is a bit of a miracle. That they have been able to pull this off within the context of a comic book adaptation chock-full of massive special effect sequences and a hero who fights crime in a bat suit without trivializing any of the issues or ideas that they are setting forth is a cause for celebration. “The Dark Knight” really is a wonder of screenwriting and not just by the standards of the comic-book adaptation subgenre--with its intricately layered plot, fully fleshed-out characters, perfect pacing (the film is 152 minutes and never drags for a second) and even a couple of genuine narrative surprises in store, this is truly an impressive example of the screenplay craft that proves that a big-budget comic-book extravaganza doesn’t have to play solely for the lowest common denominator in order to succeed.

Actually, one of the most interesting things about “The Dark Knight” is that it is a comic-book movie that never once seems to come across as a comic-book movie. In fact, as I was watching it, I was thinking less about superhero films like “Spider-Man” or “Superman” and more about such landmark crime epics as Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.” Like those films, Nolan is less interested in telling a simple good guys-bad guys story as he is in painting a portrait of the obsessive natures of both the criminals and those who have sworn to bring them to justice and the ways in which the two sides require the presence of the other in order to allow them to fully exist for themselves. (When the Joker chillingly informs Batman “You complete me!,” he is doing much more than offering up a “Jerry Maguire” quote.) Like those films, Nolan is fascinated by the idea of a crime-fighter whose determination to bring justice forces him to disavow the very ideals and standards that they are trying to uphold in the first place. Like those films, the screenplay has framed these ideas and conflicts in such a way that the dialogue scenes are just as gripping and exciting as the more visceral action set-pieces. And like those films, the aforementioned action set-pieces are genuinely spectacular in the way that Nolan has staged and executed them with a preference for practical effects over blatantly obvious CGI trickery--to cite just two examples, the opening bank heist is easily the most inventive to appear in a film since the centerpiece robbery sequence from “Heat,” generally considered to be the gold standard for such scenes, and an extended chase involving crashing helicopters, flipping semis and Batman astride the fearsome-looking Batpod motorcycle is one for the ages. (Another point of comparison between this film and “The Untouchables” is how visually stunning it makes Chicago--where most of the exteriors were shot last summer--has been made to look thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Wally Pfister, though it is admittedly a bit disconcerting to see Batman and the Joker waging an epic battle only a block or so from the location of the screening room where I see most of the films that I review.)

Another aspect of “The Dark Knight” that sets it apart from nearly every other comic-book movie is the high level of performances from the actors across the board--and no, I am not just talking about the ability of the performers to keep a straight face while wearing absurd costumes that usually defines quality acting in films of this type. These are all excellent performances from excellent actors whose work here can stand proudly amongst their finest work. For example, Christian Bale is better than ever in the title role--for the first time in the long history of trying to bring the character of Batman to life on the screen, he has created a version of the character in which the idea of a psychologically warped billionaire fighting crime with the help of a costume and a wide array of gizmos actually comes across as halfway plausible and which is the first in which Bruce Wayne is just as compelling and interesting, if not more so, than his costumed alter-ego. As our hero’s spiritual, technological and ethical advisors, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman bring plenty of depth and character to roles that could have easily been one-note caricatures. Although the Harvey Dent character gets a little bit of the short-shrift here--an entire film could have been made around what happens to him here (which I have left unmentioned in respect to the non-fanboy contingent who may be unfamiliar with his particular arc)--Aaron Eckhart makes the most of his time and nails both sides of the character with eerie precision. As I did with “Batman Begins,” I also really liked Gary Oldman’s surprisingly understated turn as Lt. Gordon, arguably the one official voice of sanity, loyalty and reason in a town that has precious little of those traits on hand. And in correcting what was widely agreed upon to be the single biggest flaw of “Batman Begins”--the unconvincing performance from an uncomfortable-looking Katie Holmes--Nolan has scored a genuine coup by getting Maggie Gyllenhaal to replace her. Unlike the dour Holmes, Gyllenhaal is a real firecracker here and her convincing on-screen chemistry with both Bale and Eckhart winds up being the secret engine that drives the film along in its second half.

And yet, despite all of these impressive contributions, the show that is “The Dark Knight” is completely stolen by Heath Ledger and his terrifyingly twisted take on the Joker, easily the most famous of Batman’s adversaries and one of the most iconic comic-book villains of all time. Granted, the intense hype surrounding his performance--with many speculating that he was a lock for a posthumous Oscar even before people began to get a look at his work for themselves--may strike some as the kind of overblown hot air that inevitably results when a gifted young star dies with a performance in the can (hell, the long-overrated James Dean is still coasting on those fumes today) but as with the film as a whole, the work is strong enough to justify the hoopla and then some. Having been overplayed for camp value on television by Cesar Romero and on the big screen by Jack Nicholson, Ledger has gone in a decidedly different direction and made the character into something that he has rarely been outside of the comics--a genuinely creepy and disturbing presence. Although he inspires a lot of dark laughs throughout, his Joker is no joke. Instead, he is a conscienceless and remorseless psychopath through and through on a scale that will have people thinking less of Nicholson or Romero and more of Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange”--even when he is doing something as simple as quietly sitting in a jail cell or sticking his head out the window of a police car as it careens down the street, his presence is so magnetic that you can’t take your eyes off of him for a second.

“The Dark Knight” does stumble in a couple of places--an early detour to Hong Kong that follows Batman as he brings an important fugitive back to justice is a bit of a narrative derailment that isn’t especially necessary (though it looks amazing), the first major confrontation between Batman and the Joker at a fundraising party has such a weirdly abrupt ending that it feels as though something was deleted at the last second and the stuff involving in the final reels involving Batman tracking the Joker through a high-tech form of sonar is never clearly explained. However, those are flaws that are at least based in ambition rather than laziness and they hardly begin to detract from the overall experience. Beyond that, “The Dark Knight” is a heady, ambitious and hugely successful epic in which Christopher Nolan has managed to fuse together the best elements of the usually separate worlds of crowd-pleasing blockbuster moviemaking and serious-minded artistry in a manner not seen since Francis Ford Coppola transformed “The Godfather” into something that was both enormously popular and a genuine work of art. Granted, it may be a little early to make such comparisons--especially since the movie hasn’t even come out yet as I write these words--but if I had to name one contemporary blockbuster that people might be discussing and praising fifty years into the future as a high-water mark of the cinema arts, I can’t think of another title off the top of my head that would deserve such accolades more than this one.

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