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The Dark Knight
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

Written By: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan Directed By: Christopher Nolan

The Short Version

Christopher Nolan follows up an excellent film with an even better one.

Most others involved step up their game, too.

Heath Ledger’s final performance is every bit as amazing as everyone says it is.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a nice upgrade as Rachel Dawes.

If you’re going to own just one comic book hero movie, own The Dark Knight.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR.

This is really good stuff.


Pairs Well With...

WHISKY.

“A Police Commissioner gets a lot of threats.  I found the appropriate response a long time ago.”

“Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should be aware of?”

“Oh, you have no idea.”


How do you follow up a film that many had called the greatest comic book hero movie ever made?

If you’re Christopher Nolan, you make a better one.  And not only do you improve your own work, but you also provide the challenges and the environment that encourages everyone else around you to improve their work, as well.

Let’s take a quick look at the goings-on inside Batcave 2.0, shall we?

It’s six months after the events of Batman Begins.  The atmosphere has changed in Gotham.  Thanks to the galvanizing efforts of Batman (Christian Bale, American Psycho), the city at large isn’t quite so terrified of its criminals anymore.  They’ve elected a new District Attorney by the name of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, Paycheck), and he’s all about cleaning up the city’s corruption.  Not only do the criminals have Batman and the DA to worry about, but now, some Joker (Heath Ledger, A Knight’s Tale) is also stealing their money and backing them into a corner.  This isn’t to say that the Joker isn’t down with the criminals’ cause, mind; he just doesn’t think they’re doing a good enough job, and he had to get their attention somehow.

In the coming days, the Joker plans to get everyone’s attention.  He doesn’t want money.  He doesn’t want power.  He just wants chaos…

Chaos may be what the Joker wants, and it may be the central philosophical theme of the film’s storyline, but The Dark Knight is anything but chaotic.  Rather, it is the tightest, most carefully orchestrated comic book movie made to date, and indeed, one of the tightest flicks of any kind that you’re ever likely to see anywhere.  Batman Begins was amazing (you don’t need to have seen that one to follow this one, by the way, but it may help on occasion), but The Dark Knight actually exceeds the quality of its predecessor on almost every level.  Let’s check it by points, starting with the cast, good guys first.

Christian Bale has really kicked it up a notch as both Bruce Wayne and Batman.  The script gives him the gift of a back-in-Gotham Bruce who’s figured out a consistent character for himself; Bale returns the favor by refining his American accent so that it no longer sounds like he’s always talking through unsecured dentures.  More importantly, though, he’s more comfortable in both roles, which allows him to be both more subtle and more extravagant with how he differentiates his performances between parts.  Indeed, sometimes it’s easy to forget that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same guy, and if that isn’t the definition of successfully playing a dual role with a secret identity, what is?

Meanwhile, Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is given more to do in this film than in the last one, and he makes the most of it.  One normally sees Oldman playing much more powerful and self –assured roles, and yet he shows that even as the Everyman – for if anyone is that in this series, it’s Jim Gordon – he can own a role and bring it real presence.  Michael Caine (Get Carter) may have slightly less to do in this film than in the previous one, but he, too, makes the most of his screen time, and has grown so much into his role that he’s capable of stealing a scene even when he’s just walking on and delivering two lines.  And Morgan Freeman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)… he’s Morgan Freeman.  Any questions?

Providence gave audiences a gift when Katie Holmes turned down the opportunity to reprise her role as Assistant DA Rachel Dawes, thus allowing that role to be filled by a much better and much more believable actress in the form of Maggie Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko).  Good thing, too, because the role got much bigger, to the point of looking too big for its previous occupant.  As it stands, Gyllenhaal does a marvelous job, and proves to be a serious upgrade.

Also new to the cast is Aaron Eckhart as the new good guy in town, Harvey Dent.  Surrounded by characters defined by their shadows or their shades of grey, he has the almost thankless task of playing the film’s goody two shoes for the first two acts.  He does his job well, and when it comes time for his character to do a 180, he’s equally up to that task, as well.  Any complaints about Harvey Dent have nothing to do with his character; more on that momentarily.

Meanwhile, nice segue that Mr. Dent provides, let’s have a look at the people playing the bad guys.  Given excellent performances by Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow (nice to see him back in this one, however briefly) and by Liam Neeson doing his best Sith Lord version of Qui-Gon Jinn as R’as Al Ghul in Batman Begins, it seemed almost impossible to imagine that someone could come along and do better, especially since the announced villain was the Joker, Batman’s most iconic foe and the one most likely to be criticized by the audience if anything went wrong.  There was even more doubt expressed early on when it was announced that Heath Ledger had been cast in the role.  Those doubters were quickly silenced once they got to see what Ledger could do with a custom-created change of voice and a little makeup.  Once the first few people realized what was there, the hype machine started, and for once, the hype machine didn’t lie.  What Heath Ledger brings to the screen here as the Joker is nothing less than the single finest comic book villain performance ever to be put to film.  Ledger’s Joker takes on a life of his own (indeed, if you’re familiar at all with Ledger’s performances in other films and with what he looks like outside of makeup, it’s hard to believe that’s him), and he absolutely owns every frame of screen time that is given to him without taking away from the performances of any of those around him.  “Gripping” is not a strong enough word to describe what Heath Ledger brings to the screen here; one really does have to see this movie for oneself to fully appreciate how special this once in a lifetime performance truly is.  (Sadly, and famously, it truly is once in a lifetime; Ledger died shortly after doing the last of his post-production work on this film.  Rest in peace, man.)

And finally, as was the case with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight stocks its third string with first string talent.  With guys like Michael Jai White and Eric Roberts sitting on the back bench, you know you’ve got some major depth, and it all adds up to a superior movie on the screen.

Giving orders to this amazing cast is Director Christopher Nolan (Memento), who also co-wrote the screenplay along with his brother, Jonathan.  After already directing one of the best comic book films ever made, his second effort is even tighter, actually improving upon the atmosphere of the first by lightening it just a tad, which, paradoxically perhaps, allows the shadows to be that much better defined.    As for the screenplay, much of what allows the actors to be so great in their roles comes from the fine foundation this screenplay provides, a screenplay with so much depth that it sometimes seems bottomless.  Once again, Nolan provides the audience with a fascinating psychological study, and this time he brings to the table one of the most amazing villains ever presented, bringing his own unique take on the character while at the same time earning ovations from comic book fans relieved to see that someone finally got the fearless, psychopathic Joker right.  Nolan also very consciously chooses not to give the Joker an origin story (dialogue gives two contradictory suggestions which play off as obvious lies), a decision which actually serves to give the character more depth than might have been there if he did have an origin story.  Counterintuitive, yes, but damn, it works.

Overall, the production design of the film is superb, very much heightening the intended atmosphere of The Dark Knight.  I admit that I do miss the art deco touches of the previous film, but that the skyscraper jungle aesthetic works here simply cannot be denied.  Indeed, perhaps only thing that doesn’t work in this entire film is the decision of how to realize the disfigurement of Two Face.  Sorry, folks, but green screens do not belong on actors’ faces.  That’s a place for makeup, not computer effects.  It looks effectively gruesome the very first time you see it (as long as you don’t think too hard about how he’s basically guaranteed death by infection, or about how there’s not enough left to hold the “undamaged” side of his face together so nicely, but anyway), but after that very first viewing, it loses all of its luster and stands out as a cheesy computer effect that just doesn’t look right.  It’s said that Nolan went with CGI for realism because makeup adds to a face instead of taking away, but frankly, there is nothing at all realistic about the left side of Two Face.  In a movie so filled to the brim with flawlessness, this one flaw stands out like a bright red neon sign.

Not that said flaw should stop you from enjoying The Dark Knight, mind.  There’s just too much good stuff going on here for that to get in the way.

Bottom line, The Dark Knight is simply the best comic book movie that has been made to date.  Heath Ledger’s performance is nothing short of astounding, and no one else involved with this movie is any kind of slouch, either.  If you’re going to own just one comic book hero flick, pick this one.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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