Review: The Dark Knight (revised)
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
Here it is, the movie of the summer, and beyond any doubt, one of the major movie events of the year. Writer/director Christopher Nolan's “The Dark Knight” is the kind of all-consuming, larger-than-life picture that makes me want to shout out a mouthful of cliches - the ones that show up in ads all the time nowadays but should really be reserved for only the very best films.
“Pulse pounding.” “Thrilling.” “Brilliant.” “Perfect.” Did it make me think and feel all of those things in one way or another? Yes. Is Heath Ledger's twisted turn as The Joker worthy of an Oscar? Yes. Is it better than the first? Hell yes. To use another cliché, “everything you've heard is true.”
With 2005's franchise revamp “Batman Begins,” Nolan (whose credits also include “Memento” and “The Prestige”) took a novel approach to committing a high-flying hero to film by boldly bringing his caped crusader down to Earth. He presented an origin story that was firmly grounded in reality and accounted for all of the unanswered questions about a figure as unbelievable as Batman, from the birthplace of his gadgets and martial arts skills to the cocky playboy persona of Bruce Wayne that he presents to the public. In the process, Nolan made a thinking person's adventure tale in a gritty and grown-up way that Tim Burton (“Batman,” “Batman Returns”) could only touch upon and that Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever,” “Batman & Robin”) couldn't even see. With its hotly anticipated sequel, he takes that same approach not steps, but great leaps forward, fashioning it into a sprawling crime epic on a par with Michael Mann's “Heat” (think bank heists, mobsters, shootouts, urban drama, and international intrigue).
Returning with Nolan is most of his shockingly strong original cast, including Christian Bale, who again dons Batman's cape and cowl better than any of his predecessors. Also back is Michael Caine as the benevolent butler Alfred, Gary Oldman as the venerable Lt. Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Wayne's trusty gadget guru, Lucius Fox – the Q to the masked vigilante's Bond. Replaced is Katie Holmes, as assistant district attorney/love interest Rachel Dawes, by the markedly more talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, finally making this wonder of an ensemble feel complete. New to it is Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You for Smoking”) as Harvey Dent, the fictitious Gotham City's shiny, new, white knight of a D.A. As fans of the comics are well aware, Dent has a much larger part to play in the Batman anthology and, to their sure delight, Eckhart has a larger part to play in the film than its trailers and TV spots let on.
Indeed, the most buzzed about new arrival is The Joker, a maniacal, anarchic villain whose opening bank robbery sets the tone for the reign of terror he eventually holds over Gotham for the sheer, psychotic joy of it. The timing of Ledger's tragic death and the extraordinary amount of press his performance is receiving enhance the magnitude of this character in the viewer's mind but the way The Joker is wisely placed as the looming, omnipresent shadow over the film would have made him feel big nonetheless. He's unhinged, unpredictable, seemingly unstoppable, and you'll be unable to take your eyes off him. In the role, the late actor's work is, in a word: perfection. How someone can transform from the tight-lipped Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain” to this jerky wacko is beyond my comprehension but, however achieved, it's the type of transformative movie acting (that cackle!) that makes going to the movies so much fun in the first place. His serpentine, borderline epileptic take on the makeup-wearing menace renders the heartthrob unrecognizable and probably left Jack Nicholson (who played The Joker in Burton's “Batman”) in a state of “shoulda, coulda, woulda” shock.
Nolan stages the layered and surprising chapters of his brilliantly detailed script (co-written with brother Jonathan) with a patience and diligence that's rare in movies today. The focus is tight, but the story is vast and, in true epic form, characters within it see significant arcs and even deaths. At over two and a half hours, the film is long, but not too long, because nearly every minute and frame is necessary and can't-look-away entertaining. Even when “The Dark Knight”'s less exciting segments teeter on the brink of tedium, such as a romance that isn't quite nurtured enough to warrant its eventual, deadly side effects, something new and even more exciting reveals itself and draws you right back in. The cinematography by Wally Pfister (who earned an Oscar nomination for both “Begins” and “The Prestige”) is stripped of all ostentatious glamorizations, leaving only a crisp and flawless lens through which to view the action. The style of the film's appearance comes from his composition and soaring aerial views, as well as the masterfully executed core elements of editing and production design. There's so much to look at, so much to behold, so much in which to be engrossed in this dark saga, that I eventually gave up taking notes and just succumbed to its power.
Leaving “The Dark Knight,” I let out a heavy sigh - the kind that comes when one's breath has been occupied by an exhausting but, ultimately, supremely gratifying experience. You'll likely do the same because you'll have just experienced the finest superhero-themed movie ever made.