Thursday, December 15, 2011

Movie Review: "The Dark Knight" by David Pretty

Greetings, Vigilantes and Vigilettes!

In revisiting The Dark Knight recently I'm reminded of the first time I ever saw Bryan Singer's X-Men.  I couldn't believe that a director had actually afforded some semblance of respect to a comic book property.  Well, that was twelve long years ago (yikes!) and in that ...(read more) time we've seen a veritable host of talented film-makers take a stab at these pop-culture juggernauts and really do them justice.

The Dark Knight, in my humble opinion, is the high water mark of this partnership. In fact, where X-Men just managed to treat its character's with respect, The Dark Knight is essentially a brilliant crime drama that just so happens to have a few abnormally colorful characters in it.

See if you get a sense of this in the film's trailer: 

The first ten minutes of the film really drives home my "Heat with superheroes" comparison.  A gang in clown masks attempts to knock over a mob bank, all the while getting picked off by their own numbers.  By the end of it, only the Joker (Heath Ledger) remains, standing alone with a bus filled with cash and no-one to share it with.  It's an incredible sequence; brilliantly staged, flawlessly acted and directed with verve and passion.

With the obligatory origin story already dispensed with in the previous film, director Chris Nolan is free to put the eponymous Caped Crusader through his paces immediately.  After tangling with a pack of dogs, a cameo Scarecrow and some Bat-imposters, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is forced to admit that his Bat-suit's immobility is hazardous to his health and he immediately commissions Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to design a lighter upgrade.  In doing so, it's almost as if Chris Nolan is responding to griping of fans and refashion the costume into a less dorky-looking itiration.

Employing the financial sorcery of Chinese mobster Lau (Ng Chin Han) and the street level guidance of Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), the mob continues to put the blocks to poor Gotham City.  Batman and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) opt to partner up with the city's new lantern-jawed District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in an effort to bust Lau.  In a stunning sequence which really drives home the point that Batman's juristiction is truly global, Lau is sky-hooked right out of his own Hong Cong highrise stronghold.

Amidst the resulting anarchy, the Joker begins to seize control of Gotham's criminal element.  He threatens to kill an innocent person every day until Batman reveals his secret identity.  Unwilling to see the real Caped Crusader unmasked, Harvey Dent outs himself as the Dark Knight.  The gambit seems to work after the Joker is captured during a failed attempt on Dent's life.

This sets up a colorful and thrilling chess match in which Batman begins to realize, all too late, that the Joker isn't motivated by the same things that other criminals are interested in.  The appeal of power, sex, and money are completely lost on the Clown Prince of Crime.  Chaos, havoc and discord are the Joker's raison d'être.  The resulting conflict becomes the stuff of cinema legend.

Honestly, there are only a few minor quibbles that keep The Dark Knight from attaining complete perfection. Christian Bale's gravelly Batman voice is even more grating and overwrought here. I honestly don't understand his motivation for this, since it almost nudges the character into the realm of self-parody.  This is unfortunate since Bale's overall effort is stellar.  We really do share his burden of responsibility as the Joker's collateral damage hits increasingly close to home.    

The dialogue callback cliche is regrettably carried over from the first film, embodied in the "I told you so" exchange with Alfred and the "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." re-run.  Mercifully this script contrivance isn't nearly as overused as it was in Batman Begins and I'm pleased to report that the dialogue as a whole is vastly improved over it's predecessor.

The first half of the film is also a tad over-plotted.  I can't help but feel as if the subplot with Lau could have been truncated a bit, thus freeing up more screen time for the two principals.  It almost seems as if Chris Nolan knew that he had precious little time with Heath Ledger and packed two movies into one. The film isn't hobbled by this as much as, say, the atrocious X-Men: the Last Stand or Spider-Man 3.  In fact, after my third viewing I have to admit that Nolan juggles all of these concordant plot threads so effectively that it actually contributes to the film's repeat viewing value.

It's all well and good when actors turns in a serviceable job, but its another thing entirely when a performance becomes a major reason to watch a film.  And so it is with Heath Ledger's Joker, a now-legendary role which should all give us plenty of incentive to kick his ass in the afterlife.  Just when I thought I'd seen every possible interpretation of the character, Ledger comes along and gives us this hunched, twitchy, lip-smacking sociopath who has absolutely no regard whatsoever for human life.  It's an amazing experience just to watch his wheels turn in every scene.  

Again, Nolan deserves praise for not dwelling on The Joker's origins.  It would have recreated the same sort of schism that mortally wounded Tim Burton's Batman, whereby the villain completely overshadowed the hero.  Admittedly this wasn't likely to happen with Christian Bale at the helm, but this decision to make The Joker an inexplicable symptom of societal breakdown ultimately ramps up the character's mythic status.  It also gives Ledger a chance to have a blast with his constant re-canting of "how he got those scars".

The tremendous performances aren't limited to the two main players.  Morgan Freeman is even more sly, unctuous and self-assured.  The scene where he's bemused by an underling's extortion attempt actually made me laugh out loud.  Aaron Eckhart  is relatively understated as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, but his performance comes as some much needed ying to The Joker's yang.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is winning as Rachel Dawes and makes us forget about all Katie Holmes within six seconds of screen time.  If at all possible, Michael Caine is even more charismatic, driving home Alfred's role as "Batman's Batman".  But the real unsung hero here is Gary Oldman, who's realization of James Gordon isn't showy, but still note-perfect. 

As if the intricate plotting, cracking dialogue and historic performances weren't enough, Nolan also took great pains to turn in a film that seems to be composed of one memorable scene after another.  The Joker's pencil trick, the tunnel sequence, the interrogation scene, the explosive escape from police headquarters, the hospital visit and the hand-wringing finale all add up to a masterpiece.  

If anything you have to admire Nolan's self-restraint and his ability to plan ahead.  For the first film, he denied himself The Joker as the lead villain and still turned in an incredible film.  Now, armed with all of the optimal toys to play with, he turns in a film that is truly the stuff of legend.

Like The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I suspect that The Dark Knight is a modern genre classic that can easily be included within this hallowed pantheon.

         Tilt: up. 

1 comment:

  1. Great read! :)
    A very well written review about one of my favorite movies.

    And tbh in my opinion the Joker made the movie so much better. I tried to imagine that movie without Heath's performance .. and it seemed to be missing that special touch.

    Greetings from Europe :)