The Dark Knight (2008)

Retro Review

         
 

04 July 2012| No Comments     by Sean Chavel

 

My enthusiasm is so manifest that it’s difficult to stop myself from gushing praise. Without shame, I will lower my guard and speak from the gut. There are so many great things about The Dark Knight that I don’t know where to begin but I’ll start with the word extraordinary. To call it the best Batman movie though seems like minor flattery in relation to what else I want to say about it. All Batman fans must go see this as soon as possible. For those few out there who are not interested in Batman and think they prefer reading reviews about it rather than go out to see it, I say act the contrary. You must go! You’ll be surprised by its ambitions in no time and flat-out astonished by the end. Summer blockbusters rarely aim to break the formula barriers. This one does and goes far beyond the call of what’s expected. The bar has just been raised.

Christian Bale confirms again why he is a great actor both in a physical sense and as an inner vexed soul – his prominent identity is confused. We know by day he is Bruce Wayne and at night is Batman, but really his two guises co-exist and yet at the same time they can be lost on each other. Sometimes against his preference, he has to hang up the suit. There are times when he’s Batman without the cowl mask and suit. Sometimes he is unsure which role he should be playing.

Early on, Gotham City is plagued by copycat Batmans – bad guys in bat suits. It sounds like a premise belonging in the campy 1960’s Batman TV series, but the way it’s staged, it’s not silly. The Dark Knight recedes from excess crime fighting to allow white knight Harvey Dent, the city’s maverick District Attorney, to overtake the spotlight. Dent is more successful at cleaning the streets from the cartels and the white collar crooks from the bench. What develops is the compromise of duty in a given outfit. Batman accepts that sometimes you have to take a backseat and let politics play its chips. And, every now and then, you have to look bad in the face of public relations to successfully achieve goals. The lesson sometimes is that you have to be a disliked Bruce Wayne to be a better Batman. Once in a while, you have to be unblinkably brutal: such as a scene where Batman has to beat up a band of cops who are about to mistake hostages for criminals.

Batman makes friends out of enemies and enemies out of friends, and sometimes love and hate is on even par (consider how eked he is by Harvey Dent dating one of his ex-flames). New relationships in this sequel are as equally precedent as old relationships from the last film. Several key characters return from the first film. Morgan Freeman is Lucius Fox, newly appointed in running Bruce Wayne’s corporation. Gary Oldman is the dependable and uncorrupted Lieutenant Gordon. Michael Caine is the mentor and butler to Bruce Wayne. Rachel Dawes is now played by Maggie Gyllenhall (gratefully replacing Katie Holmes from the first film). Each one of them are fuller characters this time, all essential components. Exception being Caine but whose British wit is least appreciated here. The important acknowledgement here is that Batman is surrounded by a strong pedigree.

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan (pic left, on left) is the brains behind the revamp of the Batman franchise. Nolan’s first film “Memento” was a miraculous debut, one of the most dazzling and twisted entry into the film noir genre. I’ve wondered for years when he was going to build upon that early promise. He subsequently made the Al Pacino cop picture “Insomnia” and the Christian Bale / Hugh Jackman rival magician picture “The Prestige” which were both accomplished but belonged on a minor scale – you can remember those movies fondly without feeling them in your nerves.

When he made “Batman Begins” in-between those two – it seemed like a smart career move to get recognized within the Hollywood brand product industry – it was an admirable effort to reinstall integrity into a flagging comic book character. Nolan did it by taking Batman seriously and the saga seriously. I found “Batman Begins” to be entertaining and psychologically multifaceted but also unwieldy with too many messy plot developments and undisciplined detours that, for me, did not fully intersect plausibly.

That’s to say I would have never guessed that I would have loved “The Dark Knight” as much as I did. But part of the excitement is that I was weirded out by its indomitable evil creation, the Joker, last made famous by Jack Nicholson’s 1989 performance. Ledger eclipses memories of Nicholson easily. Most Hollywood actors chew up the scenery when they play villains with self-deprecating humor; it’s the performer telling you what a dandy old time he’s having being baddddd. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a psycho on all cylinders. No bad one-liners, no trace of performer cheeky mischief. That Ledger died shortly following the principle shooting of the film is indeed sad, all the more knowing that he wasn’t around to see the enthusiastic reaction by fans to see his career highlight work.

The Joker nemesis is such a disturbing creation that we’re frazzled after the end. It’s not too often a villain has so successfully terrorized the screen that you don’t doubt his ability to have done what he’s done. Most of the time I think only in the movies do villains have boundless energy to hatch their evil plans. This time I believed this Joker had the relentless vitality and beserk rage to wreak ubiquitous evil all the time and everywhere. Just as I believed Pacino’s coked-up imperviousness to pain in “Scarface” (1983) or believed in Javier Bardem’s ability to murder spree and casually walk away from it without getting caught in “No Country for Old Men” (2007).

Leering mad with his memories of his father cutting his cheeks open, the Joker has childhood scarring that has spurred an infinite vendetta against mankind. During a party crashing scene, The Joker conducts his business with threats that are less comical than paralyzing (“I prefer a knife to savor the moment.”), and his verbal torment apprehends his victims who must be thinking What is he going to say next? Hope he doesn’t say that next variety. His actions are equally wicked. The Joker throws a broken pool stick and urges three captive opponents on the ground to compete for their lives – we wonder why Nolan cuts away from the scene but the scenario is insidious enough in itself that the gruesomeness becomes fully imagined in our heads.

Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) says, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to become a villain.” If it’s possible to interpret the confounding psychosis within The Joker at all, it is perhaps that he sees the grays between heroism and evil, and so he wants to exploit the precarious dichotomy in others as if it were a testament to his colossal psychotic commandeering. Not just power over individuals but to demonstrate with malevolent grandiosity his ability to destroy the construct of an entire city. His ultimate goal however, his pet project, is to get Batman to compromise his ideals.

Joker is a wild card but the rest of the movie is just as spontaneous and unpredictable. Batman fans know that Harvey Dent will eventually become Two-Face, but that doesn’t even play out in the way you expect it to. “The Dark Knight” has a complex and intertwining narrative, with a plot that’s always ahead of the audience and not the other way around. Maybe it’s because there’s three or more plots at a time – perfectly paced and synchronized – and the fact that there’s always more than three dilemmas at a time keeps things constantly exciting. Nolan’s speedy and relentless pacing is ever-ready – it’s filled with visually astonishing action sequences. He films with such restrained elegance we’re not aware we’re watching filmed stunt work – we’re captivated by the film’s throbbing forward motion. Nolan never allows the film to dawdle or lag. It’s all operatic action, drama and music synthesis.

It helps that the action scenes are always integral and constructive to the story, not slapped on. The bank robbery that opens the picture, in addition to being superbly filmed, is sensational because it makes logistical sense from a processed villainy point of view. Everything else feels intuitively in motion to the story. Nolan films the most spectacular elements with casual finesse: consider a hijack in Hong Kong sequence (we’re amazed by the script’s audacity to take us outside Gotham City) that unfolds in such a cavalier manner that the scene doesn’t need to scream to the audience, Wow Look at Me! Or consider an explosion that is photographed with Joker in center frame walking towards the camera – we’re drawn to the Joker’s loony-toons body language. “The Dark Knight” dazzles confidently without overselling pyrotechnics first.

Spectacular highlights include a tunneled car chase that culminates in The Dark Knight abandoning his Batmobile in favor of a Batcycle. And the movie has one cool gadget exploited to great use in the climax: Bat-goggles that operate like a homing radar device. Cool stuff is certainly on display in “The Dark Knight” but the film succeeds, as aforementioned, on story before anything else. When was the last time your adrenaline drummed so intensely while cheering on a hero racing against the clock, losing breath as time was running out?

All this showering on its achievement gives headway that a superhero flick is actually capable of being more dramatically dynamic and seismic in tragic catastrophe than the typical Oscar-winning “prestige” drama. This is a tremendous leap forward in summer blockbuster entertainment – Batman takes qualitative precedence over all others of its kind. It is the grandest film noir / blockbuster entertainment to be found anywhere.

152 Minutes. Rated PG-13.

ACTION & ADVENTURE / COMIC BOOK MOVIE / BLOCKBUSTER WEEKEND CROWDS

Film Cousins: “Batman” (1989); “Batman Returns” (1992); “Batman Begins” (2005); “No Country for Old Men” (2007).

 

Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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