Friday, July 18, 2008

REVIEW: Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT

It seems almost insulting to call Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT a “superhero” or “comic book” movie. Such pigeonholing lumps it into a genre crowded with lame efforts like any Superman movie after SUPERMAN II, and the third installments of both the SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN franchises, not to mention such drivel as CAPTAIN AMERICA, GHOST RIDER, the FANTASTIC FOUR films (Corman and Alba varieties), THE PUNISHER and so on.

While Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS successfully re-booted the franchise after the horror of the Schumacher years, it was definitely a comic book/superhero film. Nolan spun the tragic tale of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and gave it his own unique flair, playing fast and loose with some of the hero’s foes, allies and backstory while coming up with a highly entertaining and occasionally brooding look at how the Caped Crusader came to be.

The last third of BEGINS hinted at the darkness that was coming in KNIGHT and that film’s final rooftop meeting between Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman still brings a chill to my spine whenever I watch it. The veteran cop suggests that his new ally has shaken things up in Gotham City while escalating the crime and criminals they would both face. Audiences cheered when it became clear The Joker would play a role in any sequel, but none of us could have expected what we would see.

As portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, The Joker isn’t like any Batman villain we’ve seen before. There’s no flashback or origin, and even The Joker tells varying tales of how he got the jagged, sinister scars that recall the character’s original inspiration, THE MAN WHO LAUGHED. A master manipulator, Ledger’s Joker lurches, cackles and sputters through the film’s (too long) 152 minute running time using Batman, Gordon, new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Wayne/Dent love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall) as marionettes in his own sick puppet show.

If BEGINS was about coming face-to-face with and conquering the fears within, KNIGHT is about the inevitable fall from grace despite your best efforts to do good (with a few nods to post-9/11 homeland security to boot). Though overly plotted the flick is action-packed from its opening bank robbery (featuring PRISON BREAK’s William Fincher in a small role as a mob bank manager) to its almost operatic conclusion, often paced at such breakneck, dizzying speed that you wish it would slow down and catch its breath so you could do the same.

THE DARK KNIGHT is an exhilarating experience and Ledger’s film-stealing performance is as good as advertised. I don’t know if an Oscar nod is really in the cards (no pun intended) but I certainly wouldn’t quibble. His sinister turn makes Nicholson’s two-bit hamminess in Tim Burton’s overrated BATMAN look as dated and laughable as Cesar Romero’s mustachioed take on the character circa 1966.

Not everybody else fares quite as well, though. Bale, so good as Bruce Wayne in BEGINS, spends most of his time here in the Batsuit, snarling in a rasp that’s at times indecipherable. Aaron Eckhart seems too pretty to be Harvey Dent but turns in an impressively rage-filled Two-Face when the time comes. Gyllenhall, replacing Katie Holmes in the Rachel Dawes role, is as bland and ineffective as her predecessor and it’s hard to believe this not-quite-raving beauty is the apple of the eye of such lady killers as Wayne and Dent. Oldman is his usual solid self, as are Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman returning as Batman’s butler and tech guru, respectively.

Quibbles aside, THE DARK KNIGHT is an impressive, often epic piece of modern pop culture filmmaking. Comparisons to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – the best and darkest entry in the original STAR WARS trilogy are apt – and KNIGHT, too, feels like the second chapter in an epic saga. One can only hope that if Nolan, Bale and Co. regroup for a third act that they avoid the pitfalls of films like SPIDER-MAN 3, X-MEN 3 and RETURN OF THE JEDI.

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