Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Heck of a Knight

Well, Heather and I were thrilled last night to finally get a look at The Dark Knight, the long-awaited and much-hyped sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins. The original is an absolute favorite for both of us, so we were very excited when a couple friends of ours offered to watch our daughter so we could get to see the film. We went into the theater both pretty confident that we’d like the movie, but I was wondering if it would actually be able to live up to the mammoth hype that it has generated among fans and critics. Two-and-a-half hours later, I had my answer – yes. A very big yes. Batman Begins was easily the best comic-book film ever made, and this movie improves on its predecessor in just about every way imaginable. To call it the best comic-book movie ever doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the masterpiece of filmmaking that director Christopher Nolan has pulled off. This movie will go down in history as a cinema classic, and it’s worthy of consideration for the major awards as Oscar season rolls around this fall.

Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne, the favorite son of Gotham City who dons the persona of Batman to intimidate and take down the criminals who have overrun the city. As he crushes the mob’s vice grip on the city, in desperation they turn to a new ally – an anarchic, murderous psychopath known as the Joker (the late Heath Ledger). With no discernable agenda or motivation, the Joker baits Batman into a twisted ethical chess game with the citizens of Gotham as the pawns. Leaning on trusted allies such as noble cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), business partner Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall, taking over the role from Katie Holmes), and butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Batman desperately tries to hold together a city on the edge of chaos while looking to the righteous and ambitious new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), to be the symbol of hope that the city desperately needs and that Wayne knows Batman can never be.

Foremost among the hype machine has been Ledger’s performance as the Joker, and deservedly so. The actor completely disappears into the character, taking on the cadence, voice, and mannerism of a character the likes of which the screen has not seen since Anthony Hopkins jived on eating a man’s liver in Silence of the Lambs. Ledger is that good, but like Hopkins he delivers a performance that’s never self-conscious or scene-grabbing. Ledger isn’t playing for an Oscar - his Joker blends seamlessly into the fabric of the film, every line he delivers feeling as grounded and real as it is macabre and twisted. It doesn’t hurt that everyone around him is just as good. Bale gives us a great window into Bruce Wayne’s soul despite, in the end, a much less prominent part in the film than last time. While Batman Begins was Wayne’s origin story, this film focuses sharply on the way that the other characters are impacted by Batman. We see Gordon’s quiet determination and love for his family, we see Fox’s struggle to hold Batman together (both his secret identity and his moral compass), we see Alfred’s fatherly concern that Wayne is being consumed by his creation, and we see Dent’s fearless public façade crumbling under the weight of his all-too-real personal fears underneath. It seems strange to say, but The Dark Knight is a Batman movie in which the supporting cast receives just as much attention as Batman himself, and stranger still to say that this reality didn’t leave me feeling cheated in any way.

That speaks volumes about the storytelling talent of Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay. The film, from the cinematography to the production design to the score to the special effects (though there’s not much CGI, one character who I won’t reveal requires extensive CG late in the movie that is probably the most impressive sustained visual effect I’ve ever seen on film), sets an eerily realistic mood, which makes the film’s underlying ethical currents all the more piercing. As we look into the face of Ledger’s Joker, we see the very definition of a terrorist - a man who, as beautifully stated by Alfred “just wants to watch the world burn.” What price is worth paying to bring a man like that down, or to merely survive his insanity? As the film progresses to its end, the characters are forced to examine just how much of their humanity is expendable, from love and honor to freedom and life itself. The answers aren’t the least bit heavy-handed, if they’re present at all. The film is quite weighty for an action-adventure film, but not oppressively so to the point that the movie’s not an exhilarating thrill ride as well. Nolan has probably made the definitive and penultimate crime epic of our troubled times, and the fact that he’s done so in one of the most riveting and entertaining movies of the decade should cement his place as one of the greatest filmmakers alive today. See this movie. See it more than once. Here’s hoping that if the saga of the caped crusader continues (and at $300 million and counting I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it will) that Nolan will continue to take us on a journey to the heights of thrilling storytelling and into the deepest depths of the human soul. - **** (out of 4)

The Dark Knight is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.

Note: This is a pretty intense PG-13, and I wouln't recommend it for kids. Teens and adults will find this a tremendous film, but on a visual and emotional level it's probably much too rough for kids. Parents, consider yourself warned.


Michael Maupin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Maupin said...

I have to completely agree with the reviewer. I believe the team of Nolan and Bale have done something quite impossible: Legitimized comic book movies as works of film, not as summer popcorn movies.

Bale is a renaissance man and anyone who would like to argue should consider watching Empire of the Sun, The Prestige, The Machinist, and American Psycho before revisiting Batman Begins. You can keep your Pitts, Cloonies, and Hankses, I'll have Christian Bale any day. And Nolan--what a filmmaker! Nolan easily falls into line with art house savants such as PT Anderson, Spike Jonze, and the Cohen Brothers, but to be able to deliver a Speilbergian or even Scorsesian -esqu film built around a comic book franchise? No, this is no ordinary point-and-shoot Hollywood director.

For the most part, Ledger was point on perfection, and his version of the Joker will be just as iconic (if not more so) than what Jack Nicholson did in Tim Burton's Batman. But what all the other Batmans lack before Nolan and Bale was a soul. These are more than movies, they are a return to film making based around scripts that tackle moral and ethical issues paramount to explore in this day and age. They aren't built around a CGI budget and the gloss of stylistic interpretations of a 2D medium.

Now, if Batman III would just introduce Michael Douglas as Cluemaster, I will be in Heaven. Come on! Douglas still has some kick left in him. Just ask Catherine!

(Sorry about that first post D.J.)

Patrick Roberts said...

i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight... it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted