After the Joker's irresistible calling card at the finale of Batman Begins - “I'll look into it” - The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's now block-busting mega-success sequel to Bruce Wayne's war against injustice roars in with a far more serious tone, a grimmer premise than many will be expecting and a deadly, shadowy reflection of the world we live in today.
All hail Batman, for his grandest and his most heartrending moment is here.
If the first film was about Wayne finding a purpose, an identity and the tools with which to wage his war, then The Dark Knight is about the consequences of such a struggle, its cause and effect. As damning as it is, the point made is that no crusade, no matter how noble or valiant, is without fallout. Contemporary world-issues are obviously alluded to - from the war on terrorism to the ethics of covert surveillance - and the message is a powerfully scary one indeed. Nothing done in the name of justice or to preserve decency will ever work in the long run, and as the retaliatory nature of evil and wanton anarchy spreads, what was once an inspiration and a guiding light becomes just as hard-line and despicable. Our salvation, it would seem, lies in extremism. Oh boy, that's a pulverising and difficult fact to take and the thing is this, it took a summer action movie based on a comic-book character to make it more relevant, more immediate than any shocking news bulletin or sanctimonious political statement, any hard-hitting, gong-nabbing drama about Afghanistan, Guantanamo, the War On Terror or any sweaty-jowelled counter-culture exposé of governmental corruption.
“Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should be aware of?”
“Oh, you have no idea.”
Bruce Wayne may have thought that Batman could simply clean up Gotham and then he could hang up his cape and cowl and live the good life expected of a multi-billionaire, especially as the new kid on the block, the dazzling White Knight, DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) has the same noble intentions and, even playing by the rules, is putting an, ahem, dent in the corruption and criminal outrage that has overwhelmed the city. But, even as he admires the sheer courage and determination of this new shining light, circumstances and that awful concept of “escalation” are about to bring Gotham whimpering to its knees. Emerging from out of seemingly nowhere comes the Joker (Heath Ledger), a minor-league oddity with aspirations of madcap grandeur. A man of mystery, myth and deceit, he appears to play the mob off against one another, his far-reaching scheme one of complete anarchy, death and destruction. He doesn't want the money. As he says, “Gotham needs a new breed of criminal.” But one pesky thing keeps getting in his way. No, not the law - he runs rings around Gotham's dubious finest - but the Batman. And, thus, one of fiction's greatest personality-clashes is brought stunningly to life via Machiavellian intrigue, heinous life and death decisions, manic malevolence, homicidal humour and, of course, good old brute force.
“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object.”
Whilst the movie is certainly over-shadowed by the lingering tragedy of Heath Ledger's death, it is so much stronger than the ghoulish notoriety that heralded it. But, the fact remains that Ledger puts in the performance of his lifetime. It is easy to say that, since we are all willing and wanting some afterlife glory to surround him, but, quite simply, this is a performance that will be studied, imitated and referenced as long as actors portray villains. It seems such a horrible shame that we will never see or hear Ledger talk of how he tackled the role in interviews, never see just how profoundly the Joker would have shaped his career. And what a job he's done. I sincerely hope he's having the last laugh because this is such an incredible tour de force of psycho-babble, riotous devilment and manic monologuing that two things happen as you watch him shuffle, smirk, lick his ever-dry lips and murder his way through two-and-a-half hours of sheer bedlam. The first is that, as much as you adore the bizarre things he is doing, you genuinely fear what he will do next. Acutely rehearsed, I'm sure, but Ledger gives such an unhinged impression of sheer improvisation that every scene he is in is alive with nervous tension. You can almost see all those around him - some poor hoods and the odd kidnap victim especially - actually glancing past the camera at Nolan and urging him to say “Cut!”, although, thinking about it now, that would probably be the last thing they'd want to hear as Ledger's Joker leans in with one of his many, many blades and asks them how they reckon he got his scars. The second is that you keep on wishing for instant replay. His dialogue and his unique delivery of it is something to savour. Even when being hurled around a cell by his caped nemesis, his retorts and insinuations are gone before you can mentally jot them down. But like a bitter aftertaste they leave a distinct impression on you. He is not wild, however. The Joker is a calculated and calm manipulator of will and emotion. Nothing thrown against him fazes him, for he has not only an answer for everything, but has certainly set traps further down the line that, no matter what you do, you cannot avoid. He always has the upper hand. The pencil-trick has fast become legendary but Ledger's greasepaint bogeyman is the volatile stuff of nightmare - not only willing to go the extra mile in order to create pure chaos, but positively thriving on its ghastly fall-out. You've got to love that little twitchy air of fake puzzlement when a series of explosions haven't quite been dramatic enough for him, though. And it is funny that the very thing Ra's Al-Ghul threatened in Begins, of having Gotham tear itself apart from fear, finally comes true under the mischievous hand of the Joker, who is extremely adept at driving the population to a state of homicidal panic with his little pranks and games.
“Let her go!”
“Very poor choice of words.”
But Ledger isn't the only one to put in a towering performance. Bale is, as always, on excellent and searingly intense form. I've always maintained that he and Russell Crowe - who are, and not by coincidence, my favourite actors - continually jockey for the position at the top. Both are so unbelievably committed to not only playing a character, but becoming that character that they are in danger of us getting used to such magnetic, conflicted and charismatic performances. It is easy now, especially in Bale's case, to overlook the little things. His flippant, casual approach to Wayne's public persona is spot-on and a definite deflection from his real character. Nobody would believe this flippant fly-by-night really was flying by night, would they? But there are little darts of the deeper self allowed to flicker in those dark eyes. A dinner-table discussion that Wayne uses as a social ploy in order to get to know Harvey Dent a little better results in casual asides that probe the nature of Gotham's public knight and becomes a genuine treatise on the meaning of modern-day heroism. And if the once-reassuring relationship between himself and Michael Caine's Alfred now feels a little disjointed and brushed aside, it is only because there is literally so much else going on. Besides, we do get to learn a little of the loyal butler's covert military background. It is also evident that Bale has not piled on the pounds to fill the suit this time - in fact, in the one shirt-off moment, he looked his more usual spindly self.
But as the Bat? Whooaa-boy. Witness a high-speed smash into a wall, or a death-defying glide from a Hong Kong high-rise for a spectacular snatch 'n' grab mission. Grin at the sadism of this film's extension to the Flass “drop-from-a-height” hard-line style of questioning. And, speaking of questioning, what about the epic interrogation room confrontation between our boy and the Joker? WOW. The simply delicious angle of it being that the Joker has the odds stacked in his favour the whole time. But it is in the final searing moments when Bale's sad intensity really moves.
“He locked up half of the city's criminals - and he did it without wearing a mask. Gotham needs a hero with a face.”
People keep on claiming that Aaron Eckhart's White Knight is the main thrust of the story, and to a certain extent this is true - but although his is the one definite and undisputed character arc in the film, this element is part and parcel of the Joker's grand plan, so it is really our painted terrorist's tale, through and through. However, Eckhart works wonders with the role. His All-American looks and gung-ho, take-on-all-comers approach a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stagnant fugue of Gotham. Punching-out a mob stooge in the dock is an immediate message but the filmmaking Nolan brothers are at pains to make his journey - a journey with a destination that we all already know - one that still has plenty of twists and turns. In fact, it is to the writers' and Eckhart's credit that, even though we know what will become of Harvey Dent, it is actually remarkably easy to forget as you watch the film unfold. Fully-rounded and immediately charismatic, we understand the attraction and glory of his campaign and can't help but applaud him. The inexorable slide of fate plays dreadful tricks, though, and Eckhart's sensational ability to become a monster is especially noteworthy in a film were seemingly everyone has a dark side. He produces such rage and confliction, such hellish turmoil that you truly despair when his guiding light is extinguished.
“The Joker's just a mad dog. I want whoever let him off the leash.”
Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon is marvellously fleshed-out. No longer the bumbling patsy who can, luckily, “drive stick” for the Bat, he is a hugely important mover and shaker throughout the story. This time around he is not untouchable, and it is perhaps the threat that comes his way that is the most shocking of all. Gordon is put through the wringer and Oldman takes his likeable Lt. and runs the gamut with him, creating a version of the time-worn character that is potent, pro-active and always impressive. Maggie Gyllenhaal does remarkably well stepping into the high-heels of Katie Holmes, too. As love-interest and confidente, Rachel Dawes, her bemusement at Bruce's clowning-around is more convincing than Holmes could have done and her pivotal scenes are lent a sensitivity that the former star would have struggled with. It is still kind of a thankless role, though, despite the importance of it to the surrounding characters and the plot, but Gyllenhaal does enough to engage and convince through moments of high risk and dirty, low-down terror.
“By the way, the suit wasn't cheap. You oughta know, you bought it! Hee-hee.”
Nolan, here, aims high in the action stakes and not least because he chose to shoot set-piece sequences with IMAX cameras with the intention of hauling the audience fully into the proceedings. The first film had escapades aplenty - with the introduction of the Batmobile via that spectacular chase (“He's flying on rooftops!”) - but arguably, Nolan botched the fight scenes that are integral to the Bat's meting-out of rough and immediate justice. All quick-cuts and obscured angles, wrought about to evoke confusion, speed and a residual imprint, I'm sure, but still unsatisfying to those of us who want to see some of that ferocity from our avenger. Well, in The Dark Knight, he goes some way to correcting that. Perhaps not enough - melees are still a little confusing - but there are a few combos thrown by the Bat that are a joy to behold. There is one serious head-knock that surely looks as though it has snapped a neck. The new invention of the Bat-pod - its emergency reveal is a terrific moment - was something that I initially had reservations about, but it works just fine in the movie. Sweeping through traffic and sliding around obstructions literally has you rolling right along with it in your seat. And check out the majestic wall-crawl and spin-round that it performs at one stage. The epic SWAT convoy vs Joker in a semi is the stuff of set-piece mayhem junkie's dreams. No daft cops bicker-bantering about what a Batmobile looks like, nor curiously desolate streets this time around. Nolan beefs-up his major action-showcase with capable, but terrified elite policemen, some wince-inducing collisions and the eye-popping delight of the big rig upending itself. But, whereas such events in Begins were cheerfully episodic and contained, Knight delivers its exploits within the broader picture, layering them with a deadly tension that does not get dispersed come the end of the sequence. Nolan is not interested in immediate cathartic release, he wants the adrenaline to keep on pumping. Thus, while he may be structuring his plot via continual Prestige bluffs and sleights of hand (he and his brother, Jonathon co-wrote the screenplay), he keeps the pace with an almost never-ending succession of cliff-hangers, revelations and yet more jeopardy.
“I know the truth. There's no going back. You've changed things forever.”
“Then why do you want to kill me?”
“Ha ... I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you?”
I've already covered the score for the film from returning composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard in a separate review for the CD release, but it should be stated that their thunderously foreboding music hits the perfect note for this Greek Tragedy. Electrifyingly sinister whenever the Joker is on-screen, literally sizzling with raw unpredictability, and ominously eloquent elsewhere, the new score takes the established themes from Begins and laces them up with enough angst and anxiety to fill Arkham Asylum. A final speech and montage becomes incredibly affecting with the new “emotional” take on the main theme and much of the film's vigour is derived by the pounding insistence of Zimmer's percussive batteries.
“More copycats with guns last night, Alfred.”
“Maybe you can hire them and take the weekend off.”
The film's emphatic accolades have already been uttered. The Greatest Comic-book Hero Movie Of All-Time. One of the best films ever made. The critical acclaim goes on and on. And if you think you're going to hear something from me that will rock that glittering boat - man, have you come to the wrong place! The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. A visual triumph and a saga so compellingly wrought that, come the devastating finale, I was exhausted and shell-shocked. Yes, this really is that good. Coming from a multiple-Bat-review fan like me, that probably isn't particularly surprising to hear, but the crucial thing about all this is that, for the first time, a filmmaker has actually run with the very mood, trauma and danger that makes this hero so special, so rare. Nolan is unafraid to break the rules of summer action-formula. Unafraid to mess with your preconceptions. Unafraid to intimidate, upset and disturb his audience. In this day and age - and The Dark Knight is very much a movie for this day and age - this sort of thing takes balls of steel. Sam Raimi may have given Spidey a wonderful cinematic spin that stayed faithful to the duality of the hero and the nerd. Bryan Singer may have managed to enthral with his ensemble X-Men franchise, though he still has a lot to prove with Superman. Tim Burton wove gothic splendour with his interpretation of Batman, but Christopher Nolan has found the heart and soul of not only his main character, but of all those associated with him ... and had the courage to rip them out and make us care about them in ways that the other directors could only dream about. Barely fantasy, The Dark Knight is urban realism pushed to its extremes ... and let's just pray that no-one out there takes onboard the Joker's “world without rules” ideology because his lethal doctrine is not at all far-fetched.
“Ooh, you got a little fight in you ... I like that.”
“Then you're gonna love me!”
Without fear of hyperbole and overstatement and especially without any shred of shame, I will admit that the end of this film almost broke me. Where it leaves us and the gut-wrenching sacrifice that it takes to get us there, chokes me even now, a good couple of hours after seeing the film for the second of, I've no doubt, a good half dozen times at the flicks. You can have your disposable summer fluff - shallow escapsim that means nothing, says nothing and does nothing but flicker away in superficial ignorance of the world around it - but films like The Dark Knight are necessary, valid and downright crucial. I said the first time around that this is a Batman that could and should exist. But this film shows emphatically what would happen if he did. A gaggle of misguided copybats, notwithstanding, it is us that would tear him down in the long run, whatever good he did us.
Does this film deserve 10 out of 10? Of course it does. It dares to break the mould. It confronts very real, very major issues and it doesn't offer one-note, sappy Hollywood reactionary solutions to them. Cause and effect. Actions and consequences. Everything has a price and from now on, you'll never look at this genre the same way again. This is the most atypical, intelligent and socially aware blockbuster that I've seen and the fact that it features my favourite hero of all time catapults it way ahead of the crowd. I gave Batman Begins a very high 9 out of 10 and this is so much better that the scale just doesn't seem to apply anymore. This is ruthless filmmaking that cannot be fully appreciated from merely one showing. Luckily, I have seen it twice already and can testify that its cerebral stature, raw power and gut-punching emotional wallop only gain strength each time.
“Set the dogs on me ...” is a line, part of a martyr's speech that is poetic, noble and heartbreaking, that sends shivers down my spine. Come fade-out, I was barely able to breathe, let alone move. You won't see a more relentless, remorseless, emotionally damaging film this year. Ledger's haunting epitaph. Nolan's triumph.
The Dark Knight. You need to see this.
Elsewhere, the film is opened-up with more daylight sequences than first time around, many more locations - the pristine sight of a gleaming Hong Kong is especially welcome - and some tremendously moody, Michael Mann cool night blues. I have no doubt at all that Warner's BD, when it arrives, will be a mesmerising treat that captures all the wild heat of the many explosions, the crazy shadows of the Joker's mob-meetings and the crazy contrast of his attire when juxtaposed against the Bat as they bash around the interrogation cell. And then there is the grisly delight of Harvey's stripped-raw face, which will no doubt provoke much scrutiny.
Split-channel effects abound throughout the movie. Voices and gunfire echo around the auditorium and the sound of the Sky-Hooking plane comes overhead with real presence. Shattering glass is eminently dispersed around the soundscape, too. Rest assured, this is a strong, loud and powerful mix that is often dominated by the score, although the smaller things - a quiet, reflective voice by a child's bedside, the emotional notes played by James Newton Howard's piano etc - are perfectly rendered as well.As mean as a rattlesnake and as remorseless as a Great White Shark, The Dark Knight is a cinematic incendiary, the genre's new benchmark lit up with Dante's fires and driven relentlessly into some deep, dark places. The hype has been unparalleled, even in this game, but it has been totally, one-hundred percent on the ball. Chris Nolan, always a talented and methodical worker, a filmmaker keen to learn and to improve, has, indeed, created a masterpiece. Those franchise equations of Godfather Part II, Empire Strikes Back, Mad Max II etc - are not ridiculous hyperbole. My first impressions are simple and unequivocal. This is a better film than any of those classics, and it is so heartwarming to me that a character, an icon, a hero that I (and many others) have always known was a powerful metaphor and actually meant something, said something important about society, has now reached such an indomitable level of mass-acceptance. All those muppets thronging the premier with “WE LOVE BALE” banners are going to be different once they've seen this - maybe just a little, but there is a power and a resonance to this film that many, Bat-fans included, won't be expecting.
The film excited me, inspired me and moved me in ways that I had always hoped it would - yet, even anticipating such an experience was no preparation for the effect that The Dark Knight had upon me. An incredible Pandora's Box of a movie, this raises the bar considerably and should become “required” viewing that will be looked-back upon with greater awe and appreciation as time goes by.
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