THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) ***1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on July 23rd, 2008
Posted on July 23rd, 2008

I gave 2005’s “Batman Begins” my highest rating and consider it nearly flawless. It elevated the venerable franchise into a level of gritty reality I never imagined it could attain on film, and it made the 1989 “Batman” look like the 1966 “Batman.” As someone fairly familiar with Batman mythology, I found every reworked aspect more fascinating than the next. Then they dropped a bombshell hint at the end… the villain in the next film would be the Joker. My mind boggled at how they would make a non-Jack Nicholson/Cesar Romero version work for the 21st century. Eventually the word came down that Heath Ledger would take the reins and don the greasepaint and ghastly grin. After “Begins,” I had full confidence in director, Christopher Nolan. In Ledger, I had little. Going from “Brokeback Mountain” to the Joker seemed like a stretch.

Imagine my surprise when “The Dark Knight” flip-flopped those expectations. The story continues a year after “Begins” as Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) tracks down and re-incarcerates the escaped criminals from Arkham Asylum. In response to Batman’s meddling, the criminals step up their game and become more organized. Enter the idealist District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who promises to fight crime whatever it takes, even to the point of endorsing the actions of the Caped Crusader. When psychotic criminals like the Joker (Heath Ledger) refuse to play by the rules, crime turns to anarchy. The city goes up in flames, pushing heroes to the breaking point.

After seeing Nolan turn out moody, noir-ish thrillers like “Memento” and “The Prestige,” I figured he could do no wrong in terms of mood, story and pacing. The first half of “The Dark Knight” embodied none of the talents for which I held Nolan in such high regard. It skipped around, went to Hong Kong for some reason, took its sweet time introducing the Joker and didn’t really hit a full sprint until the Joker unleashed his plan to thrust Gotham City into chaos. Once the film hit this point, Nolan found the pulse-pounding suspense and pacing he usually crafts so well.

The expectations for this film were immensely high. Early word called this the best superhero movie of the summer and a career-defining performance by Ledger. Later word called this the best superhero movie ever and, following Ledger’s death, an Oscar-winning performance by the late actor. I can’t in good conscience agree with the former (I give that award to “Iron Man”), but Ledger delivered a unique rendition and may very well win a posthumous Academy Award. With all the overwhelmingly positive buzz and no competition in sight, this may be the closest to a sure thing the Academy has seen in a long while.

Maggie Gyllenhaal had the toughest job in the cast, filling the role of the least liked character from “Batman Begins,” Rachael Dawes, originally overacted by Katie Holmes. Gyllenhaal at least looked like Holmes but I can’t say she did any better. In fact, Gyllenhaal went in the opposite direction from the overbearing Holmes. She seemed more spacey and worn-out portraying the thankless role and might’ve brought the role down further if the screenplay hadn’t intervened (NOTE: I will tattle on that spoiler no further). Bale unfortunately had a thankless role as well. One could argue his Bruce Wayne is not the main character of the film, giving it up to allow more focus on the Joker and Harvey “Two Face” Dent. I also need to point out that Bale’s voice as Batman in this film was so croaky, it elicited unintentional laughs from the audience. Otherwise, he was acceptable in true Bale form. Aaron Eckhart nearly stole the show with ample screen time as the likable character Harvey Dent who transforms into Two Face after a tragic turn of events. Too bad his derangement arrives too close to the end and becomes a footnote lost in the larger calamity. Michael Caine (Alfred the Butler), Gary Oldman (Lt. Gordon) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) executed their parts as thoughtfully and skillfully as they did in the first film. Too bad they got lost in the glut of ancillary characters. Heck, they got about as much screen time as Bale.

My opinion? I liked it… but there’s a lot I didn’t care for. I give no kudos to Gyllenhaal. The pointless “Batman in Hong Kong” sequence slowed down the plot. The poorly explained cell phone/sonar array used to track down the Joker made little sense. The impossible transformer-like “Batpod” felt like a throwback to the silly gadgets of the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney Batman days. All that, plus the lagging first half knocked a star and a half off my rating.

I also found a lot to like: Harvey Dent’s painful metamorphosis into Two Face, the fake Bat-men, revelations of Alfred’s past, the final sacrifices, the race to stop the Joker’s reign of terror and all the superior performances made the film a high cut above most of this year’s summer films. I plan to see it again in the theater.

I can’t imagine where Nolan could possibly take the franchise from here. He has used up the least silly of the villains from Batman’s rogues gallery. Plus, with Ledger gone, there’s little chance of the Joker returning. Who’s next? The Penguin? Mr. Freeze? *Shudder* Catwoman? Let’s not worry about that for now and revel in this must-see sequel for any fan. Be sure to watch the more smoothly constructed “Batman Begins” to prime you before viewing.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars

For a amazingly high quality fan-made Batman film, check out the “Batman: Dead End” video below. It has a decent Batman, a great Joker and a couple of crazy twists…

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