If THE DARK KNIGHT had no superhero or comic book trappings–if The Joker were scarred but not hideously made up, and Batman were a bit lower-tech and merely disguised rather than wearing a cowl and cape–Christopher Nolan’s film would still be one of the best action-adventure crime movies of the past 20 years. Within its own form, usually characterized by extravagant thrills and not content, it became as close as a movie can to that time-honored phrase “instant classic,” so accomplished and ambitious that it blew the boundaries of its genre apart.
Batman Begins was a superb origin story, but it had a lot of expositional pipe to lay, which limited its scope. That duty being done, Dark Knight can leap right into its story, with a heist sequence that ranks with the best of Michael Mann. Nolan (who co-wrote the film with his brother Jonathan, based on a story by Nolan and David S. Goyer) further develops the aesthetic of heightened realism he had introduced in Begins: Wayne Manor having burned down, Bruce Wayne now lives in a luxurious (but coldly furnished) skyscraper apartment, and the replacement for his Batcave is fluorescent-lit raw space. Having established a physical reality for his story, Nolan throws in one of the great wild cards in the history of movies: Heath Ledger’s Joker.
It was Ledger’s tragically untimely death that turned Dark Knight into an event before anyone had even seen it, but it’s his triumphantly terrifying, blackly funny performance that securess its place in legend. This Joker is a pure agent of chaos, sociopathic psychosis with orange hair and a wide red mouth, and he makes Jack Nicholson’s fine but lightweight version look like Krusty the Clown. Nor does Nolan use the character merely for chills–his face-off with Christian Bale’s Batman at the police station, spitting out his contempt for the Caped Crusader’s rules of vigilantism, is a spectacular piece of writing as well as acting.
No one in Dark Knight could hope to match Ledger, but the acting throughout is utterly committed. Bale has to do a tremendous amount of heavy-lifting performing with most of his face covered by a mask, and his work in the role continues to be underrated. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a major trade up in the role of Rachel, and while she still bears the burden of being Bruce Wayne’s conscience, her final scene is superb. Aaron Eckhart is a very fine Harvey Dent, and Gary Oldman, with much more to do this time, is a rock as the only cop in Gotham City who can be trusted. Even in a smaller role, Eric Roberts gives the performance as a local crime boss that Tom Wilkinson should have given in Batman Begins.
Nolan, a director who truly understands the use of scale and action in motion pictures, and working with the same technical team as on Begins, delivers one of the cinema’s greatest and most breathtaking car (and truck and helicopter and motorcycle) chases, with barely any music on the soundtrack. It’s a point of pride with Nolan that CG augments rather than replaces practical effects whenever possible, and the destruction of Gotham General Hospital is astonishing. Even with a 2 1/2 hour running time, the movie seems to jump out of the projector.
The Dark Knight‘s signal failing is well known: it peaks 45 minutes before it ends. Nolan miscalculated just how much The Joker would take over the show, and even though the intellectual and thematic heart of the movie is meant to be the debate about the nature of heroism and vengeance that’s taken up in the Two-Face section of the story, Joker’s chaos overwhelms all that, with the result that the last few reels, while extremely well done for the most part, feel anti-climactic. Another misjudgment was the use of Bruce Wayne’s sonar technology for the film’s final set-piece action scene–it gives the whole sequence a cartoony and confusing feel, unlike any of the other action in the movie.
Although no film wants to be its weakest at the close, The Dark Knight was so brilliant that the movie wasn’t seriously damaged. It became, by miles, the most successful Batman movie ever, earning over $1 billion worldwide, and the 2d highest grossing film in the US of all time (Avatar and The Avengers have since pushed it to #4). Hence the excitement over what Nolan and Bale have in store for what they both swear is their last time filming and wearing the cape, this week’s arrival of the final chapter of their trilogy.
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