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Published: 2008-07-16 - 10:18:36
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The Dark Knight Review

By Joe Lozito

Big "Knight"

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I don't want to say that "The Dark Knight" - director Christopher Nolan's eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2005's franchise-saving "Batman Begins" - has a lot to live up to, but as one of my friends put it: "I just want it to be the best movie I've ever seen." No pressure, Chris. Warner Brothers, the film's distributor, can rest easy in the knowledge that they've put the Bat-series in the hands of a crafty, intelligent and uncompromising director. Summer movie audiences may not get the whiz-bang blockbuster they're expecting (for that, they've always got "Iron Man"). But those ready for Mr. Nolan's intense, challenging, flawed and, yes, dark vision will not be disappointed.

In the opening sequence, set to James Newton Howard's hypnotic score, criminals decked out in clown masks viciously rob a Gotham bank, picking each other off along the way. When the last standing robber removes his mask, the scarred, wild-eyed face of The Joker is revealed. And this isn't your grandfather's Joker. Heath Ledger, in his final complete performance, creates a piercing, unforgettable portrait of a madman. His Joker is 180 degrees from the last big-screen portrayal of Batman's iconic nemesis (brought to hammy life by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman"). Where Mr. Nicholson's performance was full of gleeful menace, Mr. Ledger's is all business. Where Jack's Joker was larger-than-life, Heath's is grounded in reality. And that make it all the more frightening. As it turns out, this final, enthralling performance has the tragic irony of being the actor's best. And, executing a crime spree of his own, Mr. Ledger steals his every scene.

The Joker's motives are simple. He has none. As Michael Caine's Alfred puts it, "some men just want to watch the world burn". You'd think a villain like that would make for a meandering movie. But Mr. Nolan's finely-crafted script - written with brother Jonathan ("Begins" writer David S. Goyer had a hand in the story) - has a lot to do. The Joker, it turns out, is just the catalyst; the psychotic fly in the Gotham ointment. The money stolen at the beginning of the film belongs to Gotham's mob bosses - a clever mélange of Italian, Eastern European and Black stereotypes, led by none other than Eric Roberts. The Joker uses the funds to go on a killing spree, taunting Batman to remove his mask and reveal his true identity. But the villain's real goal is to create anarchy.

On the side of good are Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman, given a nice, juicy slice of the pie this time around) and newly-elected D.A., and soon-to-be "Two-Face", Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, in a surprisingly noble turn). Dent is a crusader for justice - Gotham's "White Knight". And, to further complicate things, he's dating Bruce Wayne's former flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes and making a playful go of it).

As you might have guessed, there's a whole lotta movie packed into "Knight". And at the center of it all is Christian Bale, reprising his role. This time around, Mr. Bale takes the duality of the character to even further extremes, playing up Bruce Wayne's egotistical playboy image while giving Batman a nearly unintelligible growl (thanks to some overdone vocal distortion). Mr. Bale still makes a fantastic caped crusader, but it would have been nice if the character actually accomplished more in the film.

The Joker, more of a symbol than a character (he's never given a backstory), appears to be everywhere at once, somehow planting countless drums of gasoline all over the city at a moment's notice (apparently, The Joker is immune to the high cost of oil). There are explosions galore and - with echoes of 9/11, terrorism and the Patriot Act all on display - poor Batman never stands a chance. As it is, Gotham all but crumbles around him (likely Mr. Nolan's point), which doesn't make Batman much of a hero (also probably the point) or "Dark Knight" much of a summer blockbuster. What it is, instead, is an epic, difficult, at times frustrating film that transcends the term "comic book movie". What starts as a strong, straightforward "Batman movie" (a kidnapping in Hong Kong is particularly stunning) fittingly descends into chaos. The Joker, no doubt, would be pleased.

It's worth noting that "The Dark Knight" is the first feature film to be shot partly in the IMAX format. Six full sequences are filmed using this technology which means, if you see the film in an IMAX theater, the film will expand to fill the eight-story tall screen six times over the course of the movie (the rest of the time, the film will be letterboxed). While this technique may sound like a gimmick, in the hands of a craftsman like Mr. Nolan, it subtly enhances the experience of the film - though, maybe not enough to recommend standing in line for IMAX tickets.

What did you think?

Movie title The Dark Knight
Release year 2008
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary Freed from the confines of an origin story, director Christopher Nolan lets loose with an intense, challenging, flawed and, yes, dark vision of Gotham under siege, featuring an unforgettable final performance by Heath Ledger as the clown prince of crime.
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