Friday, July 18, 2008

Batman truly begins [The Dark Knight]

The Dark Knight [PG-13]
Grade: A
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine.
Director: Christopher Nolan

At the beginning of this decade, did anyone foresee that some of the most ambitious American filmmaking would come in the form of action films?

No, I didn’t think so. Not in the heyday of the arthouse craze. Not in the days of Armageddon and Twister. Now, while the arthouse favors vanilla mediocrities like The Visitor, action films grow in sophistication.

The pinnacle might be The Dark Knight, a Batman film that stretches its metaphorical wings in terms of character, relevance, and morality.Despite its comic-book premise, it boasts an allegorical punch that makes it persuasive to the world outside the theater.

The record-breaking number of moviegoers setting alarms for 6 a.m. showings will be glad to know that their red eye will be rewarded. Starting with the most energetic bank heist since Heat, it’s hard to think of a recent summer movie that so thoroughly delivers. If anything, it overdelivers, never dropping in intensity nor the creativity of its madness. It’s all too much. But it’s too much of a good thing.

Picking up where Batman Begins ended, Batman has turned Gotham from a shadowy pool of urban criminality to a sunny metropolis where the law, led by police captain Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and altruistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), roots out the remnants of organized crime. Even a set of Batman imitators are getting into the act.

Yet Gotham’s growing virtue, and its nocturnal guardian, are starting to attract even more devious and destructive supervillains. The most lethal yet is The Joker, a psychopathic clown without a past or a heart, who has come to Gotham to make it once again safe for criminals to walk the blackened streets. Full of quips, tricks and mayhem, operating out of chaotic principle rather than personal enrichment, The Joker murderously bedevils the forces of public order.

While The Joker gets into the act, Batman wants to get out of the game. Wayne hopes that the crusading prosecutor Dent can take his place as the public center of virtue. The situation sets up an overt political alliance and covert romantic rivalry between Wayne and Dent. In between is Wayne’s longtime flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as she falls in love with Dent while waiting for Wayne to get over the Batman thing. As things develop, Dent moves toward madness and his eventual rise as the villain Two-Face, giving Batman another Bat-headache.

The Dark Knight plays up the similarities of Batman and the Joker, two vigilantes ready to punch below the waist. Thematically, the film is a modern update of Dirty Harry. It contemplates the civilized limits of behavior when faced with the most extreme and talented threats to modern society. Batman’s mission is less heroic idealism than doing what it takes to maintain a semblance of order.

The critics have created a new dictionary for words used to praise the performance of Heath Ledger. For the most part, it’s deserved. The Joker is not just scary because he’s nuts, not only because he knows 100 lethal ways to use a pencil, but also because he’s smarter than everyone else. Yet as a person living out an appealing non-conformist personal code to its fullest demonic potential, he retains a weird sense of outlaw charisma. Even when igniting a hospital.

Let me admit, I despised Batman Begins, 2005’s origin story re-boot, when leaving the theater three years ago. Largely, the blame fell at the feet of director Christopher Nolan, who was more about vision than execution. He couldn’t shoot or stage an action scene to save his life, and too many of the set pieces, such as the low-speed Batmobile chase, seemed designed only to make a “back to basics” point. This time, the fight scenes are more polished, if not perfect, and Nolan doesn’t get stuck in back story or low-fi fanaticism. He’s helped by the braininess of his novelist brother Jonathan, whose script deals with questions of the public and private faces of heroism, identity, and responsibility. The result is a film that not only thrills but challenges.

While the film spreads its wings to the fullest, it also sows the seeds of the series’ eventual demise. With both The Joker and Two-Face, it’s stage one in Joel Schumacher-style villain overload. The film also loses interest in Batman’s character. Bruce Wayne goes from Begins’ edgy but virtuous anti-hero to a blandly standard gentleman. The day will come when these things no longer pass. But it won’t be today.


BatmanVillains said...

Hey .. Who's your favorite badass character now huh ? Ledger you rules :)

Alexander Coleman said...


Ahhh... so close to seeing this myself, must resist reading any of it beyond the first couple of paragraphs...

You might like my review of Batman Begins over at CCC, K. Bowen, for a counterpoint/leading-up-to-Dark Knight kind of thing. This looks great...

K. Bowen said...

BV: Ledger is terrific in the film. So is Eckhart, actually.

AC: I need to get over there. I've been derelict in my blog surfing for the past couple of weeks. Enjoy the show. Like it or hate it, it will give you plenty to chew on.

Alexander Coleman said...

Fantastic review, K. Bowen.

I'm still absorbing it all, and it is as you say kind of "all too much"--too much of a damned good thing nevertheless--and like I just wrote at LiC your comparison to Dirty Harry is wholly apt.

It also concludes on a very bitter, painful note that recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

K. Bowen said...

AC: Great thought on Liberty Valance. That thought had escaped me, but you're right. I think the ending also has a real world implication, which I'll write about in the coming days.

The Dirty Harry thing seems very apt. Siegel really knew how to make a movie nad how to drive home a point. I think there are morelayers to this one, and I've only begun to really bite in.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Siegel was quite the crafty filmmaker, and he was expert at making his films very socially relevant.

The Dirty Harry comparison is great, because you can see a lot of Andy Robinon's Scorpio character in The Joker. Even down to the way he starts gleefully shooting his machine gun at whatever he feels like (in Dirty Harry, it's the shoot-out by the church; in this, it's on that street and Joker just casually shoots through the windshield of a car because they're between him and Batman).

What's amazing is that the more I chew on it myself, the more convinced I become--and this is almost heresy--that it out-Libety Valances Liberty Valance. In the sense that (and I think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a classic, and the last great Ford film) the entire story of Liberty Valance is made to make the (somewhat subversive) point about "print(ing) the legend," whereas The Dark Knight organically gets to that point at the end.

Again, though, still thinking about it. Probably should see it again before I write a review.

patrick said...

kudos to the makers Dark Knight for their record breaking opening weekend... it's no wonder there's talk of another one coming out ASAP

K. Bowen said...

Oh, I'd say there's going to be another one. :)