Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dark Knight

One complaint about Dark Knight - I'm not crazy about the way they're manipulating Christian Bale's voice when he's playing Batman. It sounds very unnatural, less like a man disguising his own voice so as not to be recognized, and more like an overused production effect. There are a few scenes where his voice sounds so deep and gravelly, it's kind of distracting.

Other than that, the movie's basically perfect. I can't think of one single other flaw. Clearly, Christopher Nolan has made the finest superhero film of all time, and overall one of the best mainstream films in recent memory. The movie's a rather extraordinary achievement - intense, spectacular, nuanced, thoughtful and at times downright frightening. I already have my tickets to see it again in two days, and that feels like a much longer wait than I'd ideally like to endure. In short: yeah, it's that good...believe the hype...

Dark Knight is one of those sequels that improves on the original, but it's kind of a tough comparison. Though the films have a similar aesthetic and share most of the same cast, Batman Begins feels like an adventure movie, rocketing around the globe over the course of years in the life of Bruce Wayne. (Only about half the film concerns the exploits of Wayne as Batman in Gotham City.) Dark Knight is more of a crime thriller than anything else.

I read a review several weeks ago that compared the movie to Heat, and though they're very different in tone, it's a comparison that makes some degree of sense. Both films are about the relationship between a criminal and his pursuer, and the ways in which adversaries on opposite sides of the law can, over time, become morally indistinguishable.

In the intervening time since Nolan's first Batman film, the Caped Crusader has expanded his influence over Gotham City. Criminal organizations that once operated on the streets with impunity have been forced underground, funneling all of their ill-gotten money through a shady Chinese businessman, hiding from the tenacious Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), aggressive District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and, of course, the freaky guy in the bat costume who keeps punching everybody (Christian Bale).

Dark Knight opens with a dazzling bank robbery sequence, orchestrated by the psychopathic criminal mastermind The Joker (Heath Ledger). He's a self-described "freak" with a scarred face who disguises himself behind clown make-up. And I do mean criminal mastermind. Ledger and Nolan have highlighted the character's sinister intelligence more in this film than any other representation of The Joker I have ever seen.

Typically, as in the portrayal by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's original Batman movie, The Joker is essentially a circus clown, only evil - an insane, greedy man with a cheesy sense of humor. My point is, the focus is always on The Joker's madness. He only does what he does because he's batshit insane, and maybe wants a little money.

Ledger's Joker is certainly insane, but he's also fiendishly, diabolically clever. Smarter and more careful, even, than Batman. Bruce Wayne's relative sanity, in fact, becomes his only weapon against his foe by the film's final act. The Joker's quick-witted enough to avoid any direct combat with Batman, and always seems to be one step ahead of all the other Gotham City authorities. Sporadic irrationality is his only weakness.

Enough praise cannot really be heaped upon Heath Ledger's performance in the film. His death was horribly tragic, both because of his young age and his massive talent, but you really feel this tragedy while watching Dark Knight. The guy is jaw-droppingly brilliant in the movie, a force of sheer menace and terror. He absolutely vanishes into the role.

The entire cast is solid, though most of the veterans of Batman Begins, except for Bale and Oldman, have diminished roles this time around. Eckhart's great as Dent, a part that jibes really well with his charming-but-cocky persona, and the script has a lot of fun with his general physical resemblance to Bale. Without venturing too much into Spoiler territory, let me say that he navigates a very over-the-top and complicated late plot twist swimmingly, and turns what could have been a very pulpy, even silly, conclusion into something much more heartfelt and tragic.

In a big surprise for me, Eric Roberts joins the cast as crime boss Salvatore Maroni and fits into the Gotham universe seamlessly.

As in Begins, the action in Dark Knight is massive in scale, presented at breakneck speed but nonetheless smooth, clear and viscerally satisfying. An extended chase sequence featuring several armored cars feels like something out of a post-apocalyptic war film. The remarkable way in which Nolan maneuvers around intricate, complex sequences of shouted dialgoue, shootouts, fistfights and cataclysmic explosions and back reminded me of Ridley Scott's masterful work in Black Hawk Down.

When I review Michael Bay movies, I'm always careful to point out that his movies suck not because they feature a lot of explosions, but because he's a hack who has no idea how to shoot or edit together explosions in a way that is compelling.

Dark Knight
is a perfect example of this principle. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Christopher Nolan is the exact, 180-degree, polar opposite of Michael Bay. He's Bizarro Bay. Much of his film is consumed with violence, action and explosions, but they are presented with clarity, vigor and confidence by a group of artists and professionals, people who know exactly where to place everything, how to time it properly and how to capture it on film. The final result will be you on the edge of your seat wondering how the hell Batman got his motorcycle to flip around like that.

And of course, all of this terrific acting and technical wizardry is in the service of another tremendous screenplay by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan. As they did in Batman Begins, the Nolans (who conceived of the story with David Goyer) weave together an engaging, emotionally resonant original story from all the familiar elements of Batman comics - familiar villains, gadgets and vehicles, gangsters, scientific investigations, police corruption, even discourses on the nature of morality and justice.

What they've added this time around is a healthy dose of social commentary, turning Batman's struggle against an unpredictable foe bent on sparking chaos into a pretty straight-forward terrorism allegory that's surprisingly effective. But I will withhold further comment for another time, so as to avoid spoilers. Also, I think the dialogue is just better here than Batman Begins, which was a great script but also had a bit of a stilted feel. Dark Knight is more unsettling, and even more bleak, but it also feels more human. Not having to span so many years in the life of Bruce Wayne or establish him for an audience frees Nolan up to explore his villain with more depth and give his protagonist more of a lived-in, emotional life, beyond the crime-fighting and rage.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough, and could keep going, believe me. Just see the film. I'd recommend checking out the IMAX version, if possible. Only the establishing shots and some of the action scenes were actually filmed in IMAX, so the movie switches back and forth between very, very large to EXTREMELY large, but it looks gorgeous either way, and the sound in the IMAX theaters is mind-blowing.