Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Dark Knight

[Note: This is a spoiler-free review, inasmuch as it reveals no plot points, specific scenes, twists, or character arcs, because anyone who does that in a movie review is an asshole. I'll discuss the themes, tone, and pacing of the movie some, so if you want to know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING except how much I liked it, just read the first paragraph.]

As the followup to one of the most beloved action movies of the last decade and the end result of years of speculation and hype, The Dark Knight bears a heavy burden of expectation and is basically review-proof. But I must say that this movie, to put it as bluntly as I can, is a towering work of epic crime fiction that effortlessly lives up to every expectation, surpasses the original (which was already one of my top ten movies of this decade thus far), and will continue to be watched and discussed for many, many years to come. Christopher Nolan's vision is bold and daring, and this movie is not the easy but surely bankable sequel that it could have been; The Dark Knight is risky, thematically dense, bravado filmmaking. I'd forgotten what it was like to have my pulse genuinely quicken in excitement in a movie theater and I have a new favorite movie of the year, if not the last four or five years. People declaring it the Empire Strikes Back to Batman Begins' A New Hope speak the truth. Basically, I liked it.

Like Empire, it's darker than the original - dark on a nearly groundbreaking scale, in a pervading, thematic way. "Dark" is definitely one of the more overused adjectives in film discussion, one often applied to juvenile works like Sin City where things may be bloody and violent in a pulpy fashion, but Nolan's second Batman tale is one of the cases where the word is truly aptly used. The film is drowned in a sense of panic, terror, and pervading hopelessness, the violence is startling and gritty. Tonal and thematic comparisons to Heat are completely justified. While the movie is incredibly entertaining - it's thrilling, it's fast-paced, it's full of twists and spectacular action set pieces, it's vibrant and rich and gorgeous - I would not use the word "fun" to describe it. Fun is not a bad thing; Iron Man is fun, and I love Iron Man. Spider-Man 2 is fun, and I love Spider-Man 2. The Dark Knight makes Iron Man and Spider-Man 2 look like Looney Tunes, and makes Batman Begins look like the light-hearted appetizer leading up to the main event. It's difficult to explain why in a spoiler-free context, but I think you'll believe me by the end of the first ten minutes.

And this is largely due to the justified man of the hour, the most talked-about film role of the year, Heath Ledger's phenomenal performance as the Joker. When I discussed Batman '89 I lamented the lack of danger around the Joker - well, consider that fixed about infinity times over. The Joker Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger have created innovates the very foundations of what film villainy can be, a character that transcends a criminal, or a terrorist, but becomes nothing less than a demon of woe, chaos, disorder, and destruction raining anarchy upon a city. He takes every line and turns it into a symphony of unbridled, absurdly entertaining evil; edgy, scary, funny all at once, and certainly one of the all-time greatest villains in a motion picture.

Christian Bale is of course Bruce Wayne / Batman and as is as awesome as ever. There's not really too much for me to analyze in his acting outside of specific scenes a.k.a. spoilers, but you've seen Batman Begins, you know how he plays the character. For me he's the definitive version by about a billion miles. Batman / Bruce Wayne has a smaller percentage of screen time and scenes in this movie than in Batman Begins, but unlike Batman '89 it doesn't bother me at all. Pretty much every second of Batman Begins was about Bruce Wayne the man, his origins, his training, his life philosophy, his character arc, his rise to Batman. We had a whole movie about Bruce Wayne, now he appropriately takes his place in a larger ensemble in a movie about Gotham City.

Gary Oldman's understated work as Jim Gordon deserves applause, and I love the way Jim Gordon is used in Nolan's saga as the avatar of hardworking Gotham as opposed to the barely-there side character he was in the old Batman movies. Alfred and Lucius Fox return to back up Batman; Michael Caine remains brilliantly charming and funny and is perfect for the role. And Morgan Freeman surpassed my expectations; the trailers barely showed him ("Now that's more like it Mr. Wayne!") and I assumed Lucius Fox was basically just Batman's Q, but he actually has an arc - one played out in subplot, on the same scale of the first movie, but it's a meaty, real role, not a cameo or an "appearance."

Aaron Eckhart has been the highlight of a huge number of movies through the years - his performance in The Black Dahlia was by far the best thing in that awful fucking movie - and his Harvey Dent is fully believable as a politician but with a dark edge befitting the path the character takes, probably the fullest and deepest character arc in the movie. And while recasting is always unavoidably awkward, Maggie Gyllenhaal is definitely a step up from Katie Holmes. The character is Nolan-created (I almost typed "fictional," then reminded myself that Batman isn't real) and inherently less important to the saga than Wayne, Dent, Joker, or Gordon, but Gyllenhaal succeeds at the two things Holmes could not - seeming like a competent attorney that the criminals of Gotham detest and the one person who throws Bruce Wayne off guard.

The other gripe besides Katie Holmes that some people (including myself) had in regard to the first film was that the fight scenes seemed a little jumbled in the way they were shot and cut, in particular the final fight between Batman and Ra's al Ghul. The fight scenes in The Dark Knight aren't worlds apart, but then again there isn't a ninjitsu master like Ra's al Ghul to fight, so less choreography doesn't bother me much.

But while Nolan may not be a born director of fights, some of the other action scenes in this movie are absolutely breathtaking on a scale I haven't seen since Spider-Man stopped the out-of-control subway four years ago, just with 95% less CGI. Nolan's action once the Batpod is unleashed has a ragged, visceral quality surprisingly grounded in reality, and there's one particular scene that has been featured in both trailers that lived up to everything I could have hoped it would be. While this film is a lot more than just an action movie, and anyone who goes hoping for an Iron Man-esque pure popcorn flick may be overwhelmed having stumbled into a heady treatise on the rule of force versus the rule of law, the five or six major action set pieces organically woven into the story are pretty thrilling.

People will talk of Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger, but the greatest (relatively) unsung heroes of this movie are definitely director of photography Wally Pfister and the city of Chicago as a whole. Leaving behind the rich blacks and golds of the Gotham in Batman Begins, this movie gleams with a bruised-blue sheen of glass and metal; the framing, lightning, and camerawork is stunning. I will consider it as much of an outrage if this movie fails to get a cinematography nomination as if Ledger fails to get an acting nomination, because it's a technical marvel. Gotham is vividly brought to life (especially if you see it in IMAX, which you should, because it's incredible) by the Chicago location shooting. In contrast to Batman '89, which ALWAYS feels like a soundstage, this movie NEVER feels like a soundstage; the art direction and costuming (except on the Joker, of course) is grounded in a reality just 1 or 2% heightened, visually realistic yet artfully rendered and appropriate for the story Nolan weaves.

If there's one soon-to-be-frequent complaint about the movie I can predict, it's that the Joker's plans are so ridiculously intertwined, muti-leveled, factoring in the actions of so many people at once directly to his whim that it easily approaches Xanatos Roulette-level absurdity - it's ingeniously clever screenwriting but a bit unlikely. However, if you like Batman Begins that means you accepted the story of a world-famous billionaire who goes and trains with ninjas on the mountain slopes of an Eastern country, returns home and dresses up as a bat to fight criminals without a firearm, and then does battle with the same ninja clan now wielding a gas spray that instantly drives anyone crazy and a microwave device that can vaporize the water supply of a whole city. If you could accept that, then you should be able to accept a robber who dresses up as a clown and is such a genius he can predict the actions of multiple parties several steps in advance.

Nonetheless, this is a riveting, masterful work that unlike so many sequels rejects the idea of retelling the first story with new bad guys, instead opting to analyze the very fiber of morality in a rich, vast, structurally unique crime epic. It's a perfect example of all the best of cinema coming together - virtuoso directing, monumental performance, technical perfection, a taut, thrilling screenplay, rich themes and concepts, exciting action, a great score, and even the goddamn Batman. Between Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, I earnestly believe we are seeing in Christopher Nolan the rise of a new director who will one day be a Hitchcock / Scorsese / Spielberg filmmaking legend. He's only 37 years old and I can't wait to see what his next films hold - but most of all I have to admit I want to see him round out his Batman saga as a trilogy.

5 Stars out of 5

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