© 2008 Ray Wong
Christopher Nolan's first crack at the Batman franchise was a huge success. Would he and brother/fellow-writer Jonathan feel the sophomore blues with The Dark Knight? Could it even fail with all the talents behind it, not to mention the untimely death of one of its stars?
This time around, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has a few interesting things waiting for him in Gotham City. There are number of copycat Batmen running around the city being vigilantes in his name. But that's the least of his problems. A new criminal who calls himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) has come to town. In a show of supremacy, the Joker robs a bank, escapes unscathed, and calls a meeting with half the town's organized crime honchos. His proposal: Kill the Batman and everyone lives happily ever after. And he's the exact person to do the job. The crime bosses laugh him off at first, thinking they have it covered. Then Batman, with the help of new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), picks them up one at time. They realize the Joker is right.
The Joker starts to terrorize the city by targeting key players in the crime fight: first a key judge and the police commissioner, then it's the DA himself. When the Joker fails to kill Harvey Dent, due to Batman's interference, he starts to kill innocent people unless the city gives up Batman. An attempted assassination of the mayor puts the city in a state of fear, and the citizens begin to question the authority: Are they going to sacrifice them to protect the Batman? The cunning Joker pits everyone against each other. Most of all, he knows how to get to Batman, by going after Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is now dating Havey Dent.
Reprising his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Christian Bale (The Prestige) is fantastic. He's at once charming and obnoxious at Wayne, but stoic and contemplative under the Bat Suit. It's surprising, however, much little we actually get to see him. Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking) is also excellent as the good guy Harvey Dent. Those who are familiar with the comic books know what would eventually happen to him. Eckhart deals with the duality of the character aptly, laying his good looks, charisma and good nature with hints of darkness.
The original cast of Batman Begins returns with the exception of Katie Holmes, who's been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger than Fiction). She does a fine job playing a woman stuck between Bruce Wayne and his secrets, and the other man she loves. As the sole leading female character, she sure can hang with the boys. And those boys in fine form: Michael Caine (Sleuth) as Bruce's butler and confidant Alfred, Gary Oldman (Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix) as Batman's ally, Lt. Gordon, and Morgan Freeman (Wanted) as Bruce's gadget expert, Lucius Fox.
Clearly, though, the star of the film is Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), who died earlier this year before production wrapped. Ledger's has given a tour de force performance and truly disappeared not only under the pancake make-up, stringy hair, and sinister yet unnervingly voice, but he buried his soul deep inside the Joker's. His Joker is menacing, creepy, psychotic, frightening, intense, and yet also philosophical, soulful, full of wit and unusual charm. Ledger's performance is transcendent. He commands every second of his screen time and yet completely disappears in the role. The performance is unlike anything we've seen from him, and he definitely redefines the Joker and will forever be remembered, much like his transformation in Brokeback Mountain. Even when he's off screen, you can still feel his presence, his threats, his menace, his lingering effect. One particular scene, at a hospital, could be critical in getting Ledger a posthumous Oscar nomination. Over all, it's a fascinating and chilling performance.
The Nolan brothers (The Prestige) and David Goyer (Jumper) have weaved a tremendously complex story but managed to stay true to the comic books and mythologies. The Dark Knight has multiple threads concerning multiple key characters, and it asks deep philosophical and ethnical questions. It has enough pathos to make Hamlet blush. All the characters are very well developed and thought out. Don't expect Shakespeare here, but as far as a comic book movie is concerned, it's downright poetic. It's not to say the film is all serious. This is Batman after all. There is a lot of top-notch action, snappy dialogue, and gadgets. The Batpod alone is truly extraordinary. And for the first time we get to see what goes on behind Batman's white glowing eyes (and it's a fantastic piece of geek magic).
Christopher Nolan also has the good idea of setting the film on location instead of depending on green screens and CGI cityscapes. Much of Chicago dubs for Gotham, and the result is exhilarating and real. There's also a sequence set in Hong Kong that is cinematically breathtaking. The pacing is tight, and the plot moves along with great urgency. The production design is fantastic, the locations and sets are gorgeous, and technically it's a marvel.
It's not a perfect movie, however. Even at almost three hours, the film feels rushed especially toward the end. There seems to be too much story and perhaps a four-hour director's cut would do it better justice. Also, some of the action sequences are too dark and tight. We want to see the Batman fight and use his gadgets; some of the close-ups and tight action rob us of that. There's not enough "quiet" and reflective moments to balance the action and frantic pace. Also, during one key plot development, I feel that there's not enough emotion from most major players (except for one) and it feels unsatisfying, like we've been cheated. It was such a key emotional turning point and I think Nolan missed the boat there.
Even though it's just a tad shy of being a masterpiece, The Dark Knight is a triumphant sequel to the Batman "reboot." It elevates comic book movies to a new level. Its drama is thought-provoking, the action exhilarating, and its plot and characters exciting, fresh, and multidimensional. It's dark, moody, and complex. It's great.
Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace
Running Time: 152 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 10
Total – 8.4 out of 10