Directed by Christopher Nolan
“Batman Begins” created a clear-cut origin for the comic book character based within the real world, and “The Dark Knight” takes that one step further, venturing further into the world of true crime dramas with a film that owes more to “The Departed” and Michael Mann’s “Heat”–admittedly an influence on Nolan–then any previous comic books or movies. With the origin out of the way, Nolan could have easily gotten right into the action, but instead, he revisits earlier ground explored in “Insomnia” to tell the story of three very different men–Batman, Police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart)–and the diverging ways they try to achieve the same goal by cleaning up the city’s crime, something that often puts them at odds. Much of the movie is spent intensifying the dynamics between these three men and building up to what will ultimately set them on different paths.
The most fascinating new ingredient to “The Dark Knight” is the reintroduction of The Joker, a disarmingly different take by the late Heath Ledger. This Joker doesn’t boogie to a Prince soundtrack and crack jokes about toys; this is an evil and horrifying villain, clearly insane and unpredictable as he wantonly maims and kills anyone who crosses his path. Partially influenced by the visionary spin from the likes of Miller, Moore and Morrison, Heath Ledger takes this classic Bat-villain one step further, giving the madman a cinematic flair that makes him one of the most memorable film “villains” since Tyler Durden with an M.O. not unlike the horror villain Jigsaw, only on a much grander scale. It doesn’t matter where this Joker came from or how he came to be, but the fact he’s around and can show up anywhere makes this a far more violent and scary world where anyone can die at any moment. And yet, there’s something gleefully delightful whenever he’s on screen, one that puts a tragic and bittersweet sheen over the entire film.
The brilliance of Ledger’s performance doesn’t take anything away from the rest of the excellent cast, and Aaron Eckhart brings his A-Game and fires on all cylinders as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s brave defender who wants to use lawful methods to take down Gotham’s criminal element. Both Batman and Bruce Wayne readily accept Dent as the hero the city really needs, but someone else plays the pivotal role in Dent’s transformation into the grotesque scarred madman Two-Face, a murderer as horrifying and violent as the Joker.
Those going into the movie unaware of what Nolan was trying to achieve may be frustrated by the way the first 80 minutes drags as it sets up a cleverly intricate plot with lots of dialogue and only scattered and fleeting appearances by the Joker to shake things up. The film relies heavily on the intelligent script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan that omits the usual comic book quips that have held the genre back for so long to create a tense and dramatic film that uses the many different elements to confirm Nolan’s thesis about what makes a man who he is. Certainly, Nolan could have gotten to the confrontation between the Batman and Joker quicker, but the movie never feels long once we’re into the thick of things and it’s well worth the wait with money shots coming at us in quick succession.
What might be harder to adjust to and accept is that this is no longer the Batman from the comics, even as it further explores the idea of Batman as high-tech detective, keeping that concept firmly grounded in the reality created by the first movie. There’s no real “Batcave” this time, just an empty floor in a building with a few computer monitors and diagnostic equipment, but that doesn’t mean that all the cool gadgets have been put to the rest. Batman’s “Tumbler” is replaced by an even wilder two-wheeled “Batpod” and the costume is retrofitted with an inventive sonar system (“Batvision”?) that plays an interesting role in the climactic finale. Bruce’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and corporate frontman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) are still the crimefighter’s go-to guys, each actor being given strong scenes that play an active role in influencing the decisions made by both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
The most noticeable departure is that Gotham is no longer the dark neo-futuristic city we’ve seen so many times. Now, it looks more like… well, Chicago, as we spend far more time in the daylight than in previous Batman movies. Nolan isn’t trying to show off with the visually stylish fireworks of past films, setting aside the large-scale set and models to capture realistic cityscapes in their full glory. Those who see the movie in IMAX will know when Nolan is ready to play as the image extends vertically in both directions whenever he’s ready to kick off one of the movie’s “holy sh*t” moments, whether it’s a car chase that’s even more intense than the first movie or scenes of Batman literally flying through the night sky in Hong Kong. These scenes more than make-up for all the expository build-up as Nolan uses the full scope of the IMAX lens to capture every nuance.
We’ve learned far too well that anyone can put on a mask and pretend to be Batman, but Christian Bale brings an imposing gravitas to the role with a voice modulator that allows him to deliver every line in a deep baritone. It’s the slightly more limited on-screen time of his alter ego Bruce Wayne that makes Bale so right for the job, giving Robert Downey’s Tony Stark competition as the playboy millionaire we love to watch. While Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes may have been the first movie’s weak link, Maggie Gyllenhaal is far more spirited as the character, creating a complicated love triangle between Wayne and Dent that makes her a key cog in the story, rather than just another interchangeable damsel in distress.
Nolan has veered far from the safety zone of mainstream superhero movies with the decision to create a violent environment where anyone can die at any moment, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat, never knowing how far he may choose to take it. It’s a daring approach to filmmaking that you have to appreciate in a world where it’s easier to copy something that works than to try and tread new ground. Compared to other light-hearted superhero fare, “The Dark Knight” is such an intense experience one might not be able to imagine reliving it, but it should be worthy of repeat viewings to study and analyze what Nolan has achieved. It also guarantees this summer will forever be remembered as the one where the superhero movie genre was elevated beyond the quips and spandex.
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