A dark "Knight" in shining armor

July 21, 2008, midnight | By David Tao | 13 years, 10 months ago

Christopher Nolan creates a psychological thriller worthy of pre-release hype

In a summer drowning in light-hearted, comedic superhero blockbusters - think smash hits such as "Iron Man" and "Hancock" - "The Dark Knight" provides a welcome respite from cheerful brightness. Director Christopher Nolan creates an intensely dark and dramatic film that places a menacing spin upon the Batman franchise and its most enduring villain: the Joker.

The film occurs in fictional Gotham City, where Batman (Christian Bale), police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) viciously attack organized crime. As Dent falls for Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) - Batman's ex-girlfriend - the trio eliminates money launderers one by one, placing a near-stranglehold on mob revenue. After the final launderer is neutralized by Batman and sent to prison, the Joker (Heath Ledger) comes into play. Desperate underworld bosses set the insane and uncontrollable Joker on Batman and Dent, beginning an elaborate dance between the Joker and the law.

The cast's overall performance is superb. For an actor that spends most of the movie in a voice-altering bat suit, Bale manages to evoke a surprising amount of emotion. Audiences witness Batman's psychological plummet from an ethical high-horse to a confusing morass of right and wrong where everything is in shades of gray. Bale's screen-time as Bruce Wayne, the atrociously rich playboy behind the costume, injects a pinch of humor into the film as he totals his Lamborghini against a truck, makes off with the Moscow ballet and sleeps through a meeting at his company, Wayne Enterprises. Another lesson in mental malfunction can be seen in Eckhart's Harvey Dent whose well-acted over-attachment to the people he loves leads to a disfiguring fall from grace. The facial scars Dent receives are the most grotesque features in the entire movie.

However, the film unquestionably focuses on the late Ledger, whose take on the Joker is as violent as it is gritty and psychopathic. His questionably-colored suits and peeling clown makeup amplify the insanity suggested by Ledger's whining voice, constant lip-motions, and maniac "heh heh heh" laughter. The Joker's sadistic games with human life - planting explosives on ferry boats and blowing up hospitals - highlight his anarchic nature. Unlike most Gotham criminals, he has no logical motivation for his crimes, making him all the more unsettling. In a particularly iconic scene, the Joker assembles a mountain of cash in a warehouse only to drench the pile in gasoline and light it on fire. As Alfred (Michael Caine) - Bruce's wise, elderly butler and an excellent supporting cast member in his own right - notes, "Some men just want the world to burn."

This superhero flick also has its share of political commentary. A device used by Batman to locate the joker can spy on every location in Gotham - an obvious analogy to the balance between safety and privacy. The mass panic that follows announcements by the Joker, as well as grim depictions of exploding buildings are sad, realistic images of post-9/11 America.

As a visual achievement, the film is stunning. Gotham's urban cityscapes are filmed on location in Chicago and provide maximum realism, while Batman's screen-time is almost exclusively spent in the shadows, lending the film a noir-esque feel. Nolan's outstanding cinematography plays its part as well. A scene where Batman dispatches a criminal in a noisy nightclub is accented by chaotic, spinning camera angles, the dizzying path accompanied by the club's constantly shifting light schemes and loud, bass-heavy background music for an eclectic feast of the eye.

The movie isn't quite perfect. Weighing in at 152 minutes, the show packs enough plot and psychological insight for several movies. While it's enjoyable enough to savor without seeming to drag on, Nolan could have crafted a slightly leaner final product. Additionally, Rachel Dawes, while intelligently portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is scripted as too much of a damsel-in-distress to be particularly likable. Still, "The Dark Knight" achieves what few movies can, blending a realistically produced urban environment with highly in-character acting and a plot that's as thought-provoking as it is action-packed.

"The Dark Knight" (152 minutes) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. Now playing everywhere.

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