When The Joker Rules Gotham There's No Country For Batmen


By Omar P.L. Moore/July 18, 2008

Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" makes summer at the movies what it is supposed to be: an astonishing spectacle of sound, light, color and storytelling.  Mr. Nolan's sequel to "Batman Begins" is constantly engaging, enthralling and entertaining, with suspense in spades, and his magnificent cast rises to the occasion, as does the screenplay (by Mr. Nolan and his brother Jonathan), which grabs the threads and back stories binding the main characters and never lets go, holding them to the very end, which is what a great summer movie -- or any movie does.  It's unusual that big action summer films have as much depth and story as this one has.  The tightly-woven character studies are at the heart of "The Dark Knight" as are other variables. 

For one, Heath Ledger's mesmerizing performance as The Joker intoxicates, thrills and shocks.  Mr. Ledger acts his heart out in many memorable moments, replete with twisted charm, heightened menace and wily street smarts.  This latest Joker is the ultimate villain for Gotham City and by extension for us an updated Bin Laden, a terrorist for all time and fears, a psychotic murderer who will stop at nothing to gain power, and, as one character says, "just want(s) to watch the world burn."  The Joker ala Mr. Ledger so thoroughly dominates the proceedings that for Batman it's not a fair fight.  Mr. Ledger gives his Joker a lisp,  sounding and looking around the mouth a little like Sylvester the Cat from the cartoons with his white face makeup and grotesque permanent smile.  Sufferin' succotash!  Yet for all of Mr. Ledger's award-worthy greatness and dominance in his final complete big screen performance he is neither overwhelming to the film's story nor to its aura.  There are lots of other plot fish to fry.  And thankfully they are well-cooked.

In "The Dark Knight" the Caped Crusader has a lot of crime fighting to do and has become jaded, empty and tired, as has billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.  He can have as many women on his arms as he chooses, and no one (including himself) blinks an eye anymore.  He can have his avuncular butler Alfred (Michael Caine) serve up advice and though he listens appear distracted.  Mr. Wayne can count on businessman extraordinaire Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) for sagacity but sometimes he abandons what is logical and reasonable for more impulsive crime-fighting methods that raise eyebrows with Mr. Fox (and would surely do so with the American Civil Liberties Union.)  Chaos has come to Gotham and it's The Joker's middle name.  "The Dark Knight" contains plenty of set pieces, full of action, drama and bursts of humor.  One of the strongest reasons that Mr. Nolan's sequel is so effective are the sequences shot in the larger-than-movie-life IMAX format.  ("The Dark Knight" is the first non-concert feature film to do so.)  Many moments of action are so grand they could serve as platforms for separate films to be launched.  We become used to the shift between eight-stories tall projection and conventional big screen formats that we hardly notice after a while.  This is also a tribute to the stellar story created by Mr. Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on Bob Kane's DC Comics characters.

Mr. Nolan's film, released by Warner Brothers, opened worldwide today.

A most arresting sight in the film is Chicago, which serves as an excellent substitute for New York City's Gotham.  The Windy City's breathtaking architecture fits perfectly into the story, its skyscrapers both gentle and imperious, whether glistening in the day or peaceful in the night.  Chicago is as much a star as the film's participants.  (Having just returned from Chicago and soaking up its sumptuous architectural visions, this film was an added treat.)  Hong Kong is also a city of awe-inspiring architecture and Mr. Nolan's favorite cinematographer Wally Pfister does such a superb job in taking full advantage, Mr. Pfister strongest in his depiction of the cool blue hues of night, including in a sequence not dissimilar to "Mission: Impossible III" (2006) when Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt jumps off a tower in Shanghai.

Christian Bale (who sometimes resembles Mr. Cruise when smiling and smirking here) inhabits Batman once again and cuts a figure of complete confidence, authenticity and self-reflection.  Brains and brawn combined, Batman on this go round is a day late and a dollar short for much of this two hour, 36 minute epic extravaganza, which actually gets better as it gets longer -- a tribute to the intricate story, depth, detail and stunning suspense to string along even the most jaded audience.  The Joker and Batman are oddly disturbing kindred spirits -- two sides of the same crooked coin.  In the second half of the film -- the better half -- the sound and cadence of their voices are remarkably similar at times.  There is some apropos dialogue for the dance of death and destruction that these tortured beings perform.  Many of the scenes with and without these two principal adversaries are racked with tension and nail-biting drama, building to a crescendo of anticipation, pushing the audience even further to the edge of its seat.  The Joker is a most bizarre yet shrewd psychologist but even he miscalculates his many Gotham patients.

The rest of the cast is stellar -- not a weak link among them.  Whether it's newcomer to "Batman" Maggie Gyllenhaal as Gotham Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (sophisticated and sincere) or old hand Cillian Murphy cheeky as Scarecrow in a cameo, each performance is above average.  Eric Roberts stands out as Gotham's ranking mob boss Meroni.  Mr. Roberts plays slick villainy so well and relishes his nefarious character.  Aaron Eckhart works tirelessly and brilliantly as Harvey Dent, Gotham City's District Attorney.  Gary Oldman is riveting as Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.  And Mr. Caine and Mr. Freeman preside over this "Knight" as cinematic royalty.  The only disappointment is that in this film they did not share the screen during any scene.  The film (in its closing credits) pays tribute to Mr. Ledger, who died in January, and a stuntman, who was killed while working on the set of the film last year.

There's no accident that "The Dark Knight" echoes the fears of post-9/11/01 America so deeply.  A look at the principal movie poster echoes the fiery marks of the plane that crashed into the side of the second tower of New York City's World Trade Center almost seven years ago.  The film also echoes the evil of fear, and those, namely the Joker (and to an extent District Attorney Dent) who manipulate it.  A timely, thought-provoking parallel to real-life events, the film's release comes barely a week after President Bush signed the FISA amendment into law, which gives immunity to Verizon, Sprint, and all the other telecom companies who turned over their cellphone subscriber records and personal information over to the U.S. government in its warrantless wiretapping of and spying on Americans within the U.S.  (There is a scene of note in the film that is related to this, and it echoes an infamous Colin Powell U.N. moment.)

Finally, it would be easy to ignore the grandeur of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, two legendary movie music score composers, but "The Dark Knight" won't let you do so.  Their combined score, in its episodes of alternating calm and vigor, is absolutely top-notch.  Their musical feat is significant and the atmosphere their music evokes lends the film an even greater weight.  A completely invigorating film experience that must be witnessed in an IMAX theater.

"The Dark Knight", full of loud gunplay, is a film you'll want to see twice.  

"The Dark Knight" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for intense sequences of violence and some menace.  There are some mildly disturbing moments and again, excessive gunplay.  The film's duration is two hours and 36 minutes.  The film also features cameos by William Fictner, Michael Jai White, Tommy Tiny Lister and Anthony Michael Hall.

Photos: First -- Heath Ledger's finest hour as The Joker.  Second -- Christian Bale speeds through the Gotham (Chicago) night as Batman.  Third -- Batman, flying through the Hong Kong night.  (All photos: Warner Brothers)

The Popcorn Reel Hot Minute YouTube Review "The Dark Knight"

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