Thursday 31 July 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

Thursday 31 July 2008
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan (based on a story by David Goyer)

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Heath Ledger (The Joker), Michael Caine (Alfred), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Gary Oldman (Lt. Jim Gordon), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb), Nestor Carbonell (Mayor Anthony Garcia), Keith Szarabajka (Det. Stephens), Anthony Michael Hall (Mike Engel), Joshua Harto (Colman Reese), Eric Roberts (Salvatore "Sal" Maroni), Chin Han (Lau), Michael Jai White (Gambol), Ritchie Coster (The Chechen), Cillian Murphy (Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow) & William Fichtner (Gotham National Bank Manager)

After a re-imagining that successfully scrubbed the bad taste of Batman & Robin ('98) from the world's collective mouths, Christopher Nolan returns with his eagerly-awaited sequel to Batman Begins ('05). The Dark Knight finds Batman (Christian Bale) deciding to find a crime-fighting heir in "white knight" District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) -- a lantern-jawed public figure cleaning up Gotham's streets, legitimately. Thrown into an already volatile situation is human hand-grenade The Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychotic bank robber hired by the city's underworld to kill the Batman...

Undeniably brilliant for long stretches, The Dark Knight is still a victim of hyperbole to some degree. The storyline doesn't quite have the texture, nuance and intrigue of Begins, but three particularly excellent performances (Ledger, Eckhart and Gary Oldman) and production improvements are enough compensation to make Knight the equal of Begins. Above all, just giving its hero a worthy adversary ensures Knight is enthralling -- in much the same way Superman II is more riveting than the technically superior Superman: The Movie. The hero's only as good as the villain...

Heath Ledger's performance is the one grabbing the headlines, nudged along by the actor's untimely death a few months after he finished filming. Ledger's take on The Joker is one for the ages; an amoral terrorist, face caked in clown make-up disintegrating in sweat, with reddened mouth scars and stringy green hair. A world away from Jack Nicholson's "evil uncle" in Batman ('89), Ledger's a hunched sneer of tongue-flicking, giggling lunacy. What makes him frightening is his sheer force of screwball personality; coupled with the fact his modus operandi is something Batman's never encountered before, and can barely comprehend -- a man who, to paraphrase butler Alfred (Michael Caine), "just wants to see the world burn"...

Aaron Eckhart perhaps gives the most refined performance as Harvey Dent, a good man and face of hope for Gotham who gradually becomes corrupted by The Joker's machinations, to become Two-Face. It's the only origin story in the film (The Joker wisely arriving fully-formed and smothered in mystery), and his downfall is essentially the theme of Dark Knight. Eckhart's no stranger to playing corrupt men (see: Thank You For Smoking), so he's in a comfort zone that allows him to bring that experience to bare. While the finer points of Dent's fall get a bit hazy, the general sweep of his corruption works very well.

I expected Christian Bale to get lost in the mix, overshadowed by Batman's most colourful nemesis -- but, while naturally less prominent than he was in Begins, Nolan refuses to fall into the trap of the earlier films: allowing Batman to play second fiddle to the villains. Sure, The Joker's antics and Dent's spiritual demise burn brightest in the memory, but Bale's still given plenty of room to make an impression. Again, Bale looks more comfortable as Bruce Wayne -- playing him as a spoilt rich kid, arriving at fund-raisers in a helicopter with three babes hanging on his arm. Bruce Wayne's a bit of a big-headed prick in public. Indeed, there seems to be three persona's at play in Nolan's world: Batman the granite-voiced vigilante, Wayne the indulgent playboy, and Bruce the humanitarian philanthropist.

Surprisingly, Gary Oldman gives a notable performance as Lieutenant Jim Gordon. It's not that I don't rate Oldman as an actor; it's just that Gordon was a bit superfluous in Begins and didn't strike me as being important enough to focus on in Knight. But his story actually ran parallel to Batman's investigation, and takes some unexpected twists and turns in the latter stages. For a character that barely got a look-in during the earlier films, Gordon's success is indicative of Nolan's real-world perspective on Batman and its close connections to film noir detective stories.

The supporting cast carried over from Begins continue their fine work: Caine is dry-witted and anchors the film's humanity, Morgan Freeman's amiable Lucius Fox has a few neat scenes, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes) is fine, if unremarkable. There are a lot of new faces with relatively minor roles to play, but I was most surprised to see Eric Roberts giving a decent performance as mob boss Salvatore "Sal" Maroni. And the geek in me grinned at the presence of Nestor Carbonell (Lost) as Gotham's Mayor and William Fichtner (Prison Break) as a gun-toting bank manager.

Christopher Nolan is just as confident orchestrating Dark Knight as he was in Begins, perhaps more so now his crew realize the magic possible from this comic-book interpretation. The action's slicker, the fight choreography smoother, and the refinements to Batman's suit and aesthetic of Gotham City (abandoning the murky, ghetto-like squalor of Begins) are easier on the eye.

There aren't too many set-pieces to satiate audiences after pure blockbuster escapism, but that's clearly not the driving force behind Dark Knight. This is a film with ideas, characterisation and themes at the forefront of the script. It offers food for thought, but not much nourishment in the way of action. That's not to say there isn't spectacle (a raid in Hong Kong, a car chase, a game of chicken with the "Batpod", the demolishment of a hospital, etc.), just that these are brief outbursts in the midst of a crime-based character study.

Overall, The Dark Knight is definitely a top-quality product that picks up the ball and runs with it. By the end, I didn't feel as invigorated by Knight as I was by Begins (its freshness has understandably faded in the 3-year wait between movies), and I think the flow of Begins' script was more sustained and layered. That said, the villains are far more enjoyable in Knight and Ledger's performance raises the bar a notch higher. In fact, it's almost depressing to realize The Joker's time has come and gone -- because, while I'm sure other Bat-villains will be rejuvenated in sequels, The Clown Prince Of Crime will be a very tough act to follow...

Warner Brothers
Budget: $180 million
152 minutes