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Opens: Friday, July 18 (Warner Bros.)
“The Dark Knight” is pure adrenaline. Returning director Christopher Nolan, having dispensed with his introspective, moody origin story, now puts the Caped Crusader through a decathlon of explosions, vehicle flips, hand-to-hand combat, midair rescues and pulse-pounding suspense.
Nolan is one of our smarter directors. He builds movies around ideas and characters, and “Dark Knight” is no exception. The ideas here are not new to the movie world of cops and criminal, but in the context of a comic book movie, they ring out with startling clarity. In other words, you expect moralistic underpinnings in a Martin Scorsese movie; in a Batman movie, they hit home with renewed vigor.
None of this artistic achievement denies the re-energized Warner Bros./DC Comics franchise its commercial muscle. Those bags of money in the movie’s opening bank heist are nothing compared with the worldwide boxoffice haul “Dark Knight” will take from theaters. Repeat viewings are a certainty.
Repeat viewings might also be a necessity. That adrenaline rush comes at a cost: With the film’s race-car pace, noise levels, throbbing music and density of stratagems, no one will follow all the plot points at first glance. Not that the story with its double crosses and ingenious plans isn’t clear, but to enjoy the full glory of these urban battlefield strategies, multiple viewings are required.
“Dark Knight” revolves around notions of the yin and yang between Hero and Villain and of those gray areas where social conscience and individuality collide. Thinking logically, Nolan and his co-writer/brother Jonathan, working from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, imagine that the heroism of Bruce Wayne’s Batman (a returning and very buff Christian Bale) is a double-edged sword. (A theme the current “Hancock” toyed with but badly mucked up.) Cleaning up the streets of Gotham City turns the crime cartels into an even more dangerous beast that, once cornered, resorts to its own doomsday machine: the maniacally clever and criminally amoral Joker (the late Heath Ledger). And vigilante justice is nonetheless “justice” from outside the law. So who or what polices him?
Running for cover, the mob head (Eric Roberts) first takes refuge with a Hong Kong crime mogul (Chin Han). Then when Batman takes him down, he and his fellow mobsters hold their noses and in desperation settle on a man who knows no rules and plays everyone against one another. The Joker relishes the assignment precisely because of his “admiration” for the Dark Knight. In one key confrontation, the Joker purrs to Batman, like a bride to a groom, “You complete me.” The criminal clown, his makeup designed to emphasize his facial deformations, sees in a man dressed up in a bat suit “a freak like me.”
Seemingly on the side of good are the city’s White Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart); his girlfriend/Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — and, if you recall from “Batman Begins,” Bruce Wayne’s longtime love — and police Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). But loyalties are easily dislodged by threats or money. The Joker’s true purpose, besides amusing himself trying to outwit Batman, is to see if he can “turn” the White Knight to his dark side.
One wishes Nolan had cast a different actor than Eckhart as this White Knight. Although very good at playing duplicitousness and irony — witness “Thank You for Smoking” — Eckhart never quite seems the crusader presumably intended. He will, of course, turn into Two-Face, but you sense this propensity too early.
The Joker, though, sees everyone as two-faced, even Batman, in his estimation. When confronted by pure evil — and there is a kind of purity to the Joker’s rule of no rules — what can a vigilante do but violate his own moral code? The Joker means to push Batman beyond those limits.
With six major action sequences shot with Imax cameras, Nolan pushes his own cinematic envelope. If the action in “Batman Begins” received ho-hum reviews in some quarters, this won’t happen with “Dark Knight.” Batman flies around the skyscrapers of Gotham and Hong Kong, rips through any number of villains with his martial arts, tears through streets in his armor-clad, two-wheeled Bat-Pod and has more tech backup than James Bond. While all modern movie action is visual-effects driven, the stunt work in “Dark Knight” looks like it’s happening on the streets and not in a computer.
Bale again brilliantly personifies all the deep traumas and misgivings of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. A bit of Hamlet is in this Batman. Ledger’s performance is a beauty. His Joker has a slow cadence of speech, as if weighing words for maximum mischief and contempt. He moves languidly as if to savor his dark deeds, his head and body jerking at times from an overload of brain impulses.
Michael Caine’s butler extraordinaire, Alfred, and Morgan Freeman’s scientific genius, Lucius, have settled into their dutiful roles as oases of the expected when all else is unexpected. Gyllenhaal is not exactly wasted, but she can’t do much with a tissue-thin heroine. Oldman as the all-too-human cop is a quiet triumph in superb character acting.
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Legendary Pictures a Syncopy production; cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Eric Roberts; director: Christopher Nolan; screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan; story by: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer; producers: Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan; executive producers: Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Kevin De La Noy, Thomas Tull; director of photography: Wally Pfester; production designer: Nathan Crowley; music: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard; costume designer: Lindy Hemming; editor: Lee Smith.
Rated PG-13, 152 minutes
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