Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

I may be the last person on the planet to see this film, but better late than never.

The Dark Knight - It's rare that a film lives up to all the hype, but in the hands of director Christopher Nolan and a brilliant cast, this one does.

One year after the events of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale), honest cop Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are putting the squeeze on Gotham City's crime bosses. Just when it appears that they may be winning the war on organized crime, a sociopathic agent of chaos called the Joker (Heath Ledger) begins to terrorize the city with his own twisted propaganda of the deed.

Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige) proved with the previous film that he could craft intense action scenes and intense performances without skipping a beat. In his second journey into the shadows of Gotham City, Nolan turns the intensity dial up to 11 to deliver what may be the best superhero film ever made. It's certainly the darkest one, and despite the PG-13 rating in the US, one of the most violent. It's not a perfect film, but it comes close.

Screenwriters Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan (Memento, The Prestige), and David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins) take the conflict between a dark hero and an even darker villain to almost Shakespearean heights. By not providing a definitive origin for the Joker or explaining his madness, they create a character who remains a frightening enigma. This is the Joker the way he should be, the twisted opposite of an emotionally scarred hero.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister (Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige), production designer Nathan Crowley (Batman Begins, The Prestige), and costume designer Lindy Hemming (Batman Begins, Casino Royale) render an environment that seems part of our real world while also suggesting the twisted emotional terrain that gave birth to both Batman and the Joker. Reflecting the main character's war on crime, Gotham City looks cleaner and more prosperous than in the previous film. The musical score by James Newton Howard (Batman Begins, King Kong) and Hans Zimmer (Batman Begins, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) is a dark, swirling mass of sound that captures the contradictions of Gotham City and its Dark Knight.

Bale once again brings substance to his portrayal of socialite Bruce Wayne and his obsessed vigilante alter ego, remaining the definitive Batman of film or television. What can one really say about the late Ledger's performance as the Joker except that it's brilliant. His Joker creates an indelible impression upon the screen. This isn't Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson. This is a raw, messy, stark raving mad tour de force of a performance, to the point where Ledger ceases to exist and only the Joker remains. Eckhart gives a strong performance as the idealistic Harvey Dent, Gotham City's Light Knight to Batman's Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne's romantic rival, and his performance only gets better after he's victimized by the Joker's campaign of terror.

The rest of the cast is strong across the board, including Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins), Oldman as Lt. Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox, Monique Gabriela Curnen as Detective Anna Ramirez, Chin Han as crime gang accountant Lau, Nestor Carbonell as Gotham City's Mayor, Eric Roberts as crime boss Sal Maroni, Anthony Michael Hall as reporter Mike Engel, Keith Szarabajka as Detective Gerard Stephens, Colin McFarlane as Police Commissioner Loeb, Melinda McGraw and Nathan Gamble as Gordon's wife and son, Doug Ballard as a businessman and Tiny Lister as a prison inmate who have key roles in stopping one of the Joker's plans, and Cillian Murphy briefly reprising his role as the Scarecrow.

The Dark Knight is a masterpiece in a genre where action and visuals are too often stronger than writing or acting. Everything about this film is high quality, and it serves as an enduring testament to the talent of the late Heath Ledger. Highly recommended.

[5 out of 5 stars]

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