by Tim Gordon
With the urgency of a bolt of lightning, director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan sets up the ultimate morality tale between vigilante justice and true demented evil in the summer movie masterpiece, The Dark Knight.
After explaining the Bruce Wayne/Batman back-story in Batman Begins, Nolan gets right to business telling the tale of a mysterious archenemy, the Joker (Heath Ledger) who has but one goal – to plunge Gotham into unrest and chaos. Starting with an ominous bank robbery, he puts Gotham’s citizens on notice that this is going to be a long, dark, twisted journey.
In addition to fighting criminals, Batman must deal with the many “copycats” that have sprung up inspired by his example from the first film. But even he is unprepared for the latest threat from the psychotic, demented Joker who even has the town’s underworld on edge.
But not all is lost, there are still a few good men left in the person of Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldham) and the city’s new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Gotham’s “White Knight,” Dent is a rising star bringing both change and hope to the beleaguered city. With leaks in every level of Gotham’s government, Dent is determined to clean up the crime while both Gordon and Batman wonder if he can be trusted. Further complicating matters, Dent also is dating his former flame, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). After careful inspection, Wayne is convinced that Gotham’s future is safe in Dent’s hands.
With greater risk to his safety and taking more bumps and bruises than usual, Wayne turns to his trusted friend and colleague, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to update some of the features of his suit. After a difficult night fighting crime, Alfred (Michael Caine) warns Wayne to “know your limits.” “Batman has no limits,” replies Wayne. “But YOU do,” the trusting butler replies. Soon the three forge an alliance to clean up Gotham’s mean streets. With Batman’s help, Dent’s office arrests and locks up nearly every criminal in the city – all except the Joker.
Ever the agent of chaos, the Joker cooks up a diabolical scheme that he presents to Gotham’s hoods – that for half of their worth, he will kill Batman. To prove he means business, he takes a page from “The Godfather” by executing several key officials, simultaneously to get the Caped Crusader’s attention and draw him into the open. With no affiliations or allegiances, Batman soon discovers that the Joker can’t be reasoned with, bargained with or bought. He wants nothing more then to plunge the city into despair and watch it burn.
Committing one despicable act after another, the Joker stretches Batman’s level of tolerance to the breaking point. His methods are so severe, he actually has Batman contemplating violating his strict code – to never take a life. “People are dying out there Alfred, what would you have me do?” asks a despondent Wayne. “Endure, Master Wayne . . . Batman will make the choice that no one else can make – the right choice.” How will the Dark Knight subdue a criminal mastermind with no rules, no plans or no regard for anything or anyone?
Brilliantly manipulating the action, Nolan uses the film’s eerie score and a tour-de-force performance from Ledger to elevate the story from a simple comic book film to a classic movie masterpiece. Like water on low heat, The Dark Knight, slowly simmers reaching a bubbling boil with it’s rousing finale. Unlike earlier campy attempts to tell the story, Nolan’s script fully embraces Frank Miller’s darker tone. His masterful direction coupled with a strong screenplay accentuated with an outstanding cast of actors is almost an unbeatable combination – and the best film of the year to this point!
Ledger is brilliant in one of his final roles channeling a twisted, demented quality that is truly scary and terrifying. At any moment, he can easily torture, taunt or kill some unsuspecting person. With his trademark wicked sinister cackle, Ledger is like a force of nature unleashed. Whether he is going mano y mano with Batman in an interrogation room or dressed like a hospital nurse blowing up a building, he gives an inspired and truly remarkable performance that shows that the talented actor totally enveloped himself in the controversial role. Much like the superstar confrontation between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat, Ledger’s Joker demands that Bale’s Batman digs deep for a reserve not only to endure his archenemy, but ultimately to survive.
Nolan also gets great performances from other members of his talented cast. Eckhart is fantastic as the shining light who falls from grace because of love. Oldham is the dignified soul of the series, the one honest constant in a cesspool of corruption. Veteran actors Freeman and Caine not only provide guidance and equipment to aid the Cape Crusader, but wise counsel as well. Even Gyllenhaal seems a better choice than Katie Holmes as the object of affection for Dent and Wayne.
In the pantheon of successful sequels, The Dark Knight joins The Godfather, Part II, Aliens and The Empire Strikes Back as second films more accomplished than their heralded predecessors. While the Joker may not have a plan and is only interested in “doing things,” the same can’t be said for Nolan who has given fans and novices alike something that we’ve all waited for – a true event film that not only elevates the franchise, but the entire comic genre!
**Check out the first six minutes of “The Dark Knight.”**