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Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight (****)

"You Either Die A Hero Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain."

The Dark Knight behaves as if it would be surprised to learn it's a comic book superhero movie. It expends a muscular two and a half hours vigorously arguing that it's an epic crime drama and haunting Shakespearean tragedy. The Dark Knight would convincingly win its argument, too, were it not for the guy dressed like a bat, the clown-faced killer, and the man missing half his face. Even then it cuts them all down to size, tears them inside out, and bares their souls for the world to see. The Dark Knight turns out to be a gripping four way dance: three men trying to preserve their city and one enigmatic chaos-bringer tearing apart all their efforts, and tragically later, their bond.

Escalation. This was the idea that ended Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight all but redefines the word. There is so much going on in The Dark Knight, so much happening, often all at once, it's almost staggering. The intricate details of Batman, Gordon and Dent's war on the mob, going after the mob's money laundering, indicting underbosses to turn state's evidence against the godfathers of the city, could be straight from The Wire. Batman outdoes Mission: Impossible III's Ethan Hunt in both coolness and jumping off of buildings when he makes a special and all-kinds-of-illegal side trip to Hong Kong to "extradite" (a better word is "kidnap") Zau, a potential Wayne Industries business partner who works as the Gotham mob's accountant. (Side note: one of the best things about Christopher Nolan's Batman films is that they are global in scope. His Batman and his Gotham City are palpably a part of our world, not existing in a sealed off, self-contained universe of soundstages and CGI cityscapes.) 

Meanwhile, the Joker robs a mob bank in a splendid homage to Heat, and then essentially hires himself as the mob's enforcer, giving himself the assignment of eliminating the Batman. In between, the Joker bumps off each mob boss (played by Eric Roberts and Michael Jai White) and takes over their operations to give Gotham City "a better class of criminal". Then the real shit hits the fan. 

City officials are assassinated. Jim Gordon becomes Comissioner. A pivotal handsome face is scarred irrevocably. And a major death, but not the one expected. Minor characters, like one of Gordon's cops or Bruce Wayne's accountant, end up making huge mistakes that cost our heroes gravely. Even Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, bemused) and faithful Alfred (Michael Caine, rock solid) get important bits of business. Fox takes a moral stand against Bruce Wayne abusing his technologies while Alfred makes a difficult decision to burn Rachel Dawes' goodbye letter to Bruce and protect his employer from further heartache.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, confident and firing at all cylinders) was the singular focus of Batman Begins, and the previous chapter did its job so well that Batman is able share a much grander canvas with Lieutenant James Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and the Joker without being upstaged and shoved to the background. Wayne's two lives have settled into a successful routine in the last year. He can sleep through his days as Chairman of Wayne Enterprises and flaunt his bevy of easy hotties (to Rachel Dawes' eye-rolling chagrin) thanks to Lucius Fox minding the store. Fox is also ever-upgrading Batman's suit and weapons in the best Q tradition. Meanwhile, Batman has become a mythic figure of inspiration to the people of Gotham. In some ways, the wrong kind of inspiration as bands of misguided caped crusaders dress like him and attempt to protect the city, causing far more trouble than they're worth.

A year after the "Narrows Attack" and demise of Ra's Al Ghul in the first film, Batman, Gordon and Dent have formed an effective team in bringing down the mobs that choke the life out of Gotham City. (It was a nice touch to open the picture with Batman apprehending Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, (Cillian Murphy, welcome back) tying up a loose end of Batman Begins.) The Joker reveals himself to be a dangerous wildcard, singlehandedly upending all of work being done to save Gotham. As tragedy compounds tragedy despite our heroes' best efforts, Wayne begins to ask the hard questions about what Batman is worth. I thought the pressures the Joker placed on Bruce Wayne midway in the movie where he decided to turn himself in as Batman were weak and insufficient. I didn't buy that part of the story. I was glad to see Rachel didn't either and she was more than a little disgusted at Bruce for allowing Harvey to take the fall for him. But everything worked out fine for them. Wait, no, it really, really didn't.

The strangest stuff was Batman's (off the record) friendly relationship with the Gotham Police. There were moments of Batman in his full regalia inside police headquarters that skate memories of Adam West and Burt Ward hanging out with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara. The Police didn't seem to mind Batman parking his, presumably unlicensed, Batmobile and Bat-Pod in the police parking garage. Maybe the glove compartment of his now-destroyed Batmobile (which must put smiles on toy licensors' faces) was full of unpaid tickets. Despite all his wonderful toys, there were moments when Batman seemed strangely inadequate for his mission. So much action happens in broad daylight that Bruce Wayne was reduced to meddling in his "much more subtle" Lamhborgini once or twice. And old Batsuit or new, light is not Batman's friend. The more clearly we see the Batsuits, the more the illusion is lost by what eyesores they are.

There has never been a Joker to equal the vile, mesmerizing psychopath the late Heath Ledger created. Ledger's Joker is a creature of pure malevolence, bereft of moral or ethical limitations. Every second the Joker is on the screen, Ledger virtually has his hand clenched around each audience's member's throat, forcing us to pay attention to him. The first big shock of the movie was the "disappearing pen" trick the Joker pulled on a mobster, and we laughed not because it was funny, but because it was sadistic and horrible. It was fascinating gauging the reactions of people in the theater when the Joker was on the screen. I overheard a number of people, mostly girls, whisper "he's so scary." 

All of the Joker's murders, his forward-thinking schemes of escape and attacks, were brilliant, if highly improbable. I loved the Joker's stories about how he got his scars, one about his father told to a mob boss, and another about his wife told to Rachel Dawes. I don't believe a word of it, or anything that comes from that lunatic's mouth, personally. Nolan and Ledger gives us sides of the Joker we've never seen before, like when he's dressed as a nurse visiting Harvey Dent in the hospital, or sitting on the floor "helpless", baiting a stupid cop. I believe Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is the new standard by which the character will now be defined and redefined, in the comics and elsewhere. 

The Dark Knight more than satisfies in Batman's interactions with the Joker. Their classic interplay was brought to life, fully developed, in just a few precious scenes. The Joker's conversations with Batman, challenging Batman's sense of morality, creating dilemmas and provoking his responses, were amazing, far richer and more intriguing than the "comic booky" dialogue route they could have tread. I loved how the Joker quickly deduced Batman's affections for Rachel from the way he "dove after her". (A great bit was Batman's "Let her go" and Joker's retort, "Poor choice of words." before throwing Rachel away like yesterday's garbage.) 

The scene where Batman locks the interrogation room from the inside because he wants to beat the Joker half to death to find out where Rachel and Dent are was electrifying. This is most terrifying Batman has ever been in a movie, but even at his most intimidating, the Joker just laughed Batman's physical threats off. The Joker knows Batman's limits all too well. I adored how Joker lied to Batman, sending him to Dent's location and not Rachel's. Finally, the Joker's scheme to force one ferry of passengers to choose to blow up the other failing was great, especially in how it was a victory for Gotham and the goodness of the people who live there, proving Batman's point over the Joker's. Considering Ledger cannot return for any sequels, it was more than a little surprising that his Joker didn't take the long drop into a dirt nap that Jack Nicholson's Joker did.

Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, doing fine work), Gotham City's "White Knight", emerges as a bright, heroic hope-bringer, everything Batman can't be. So persuasive is Dent's crusading passion that Bruce Wayne's jealous asshole attempts to cock block him from their mutual love, Rachel Dawes, ends with him firmly on Dent's side. Bruce Wayne believes in Harvey Dent, and so do we. He was the best of them, as Batman says. I loved the way the movie showed violent little cracks in Dent's shimmering armor, like his tendancy to cheat chance with his lucky two-headed dollar coin, and when he kidnapped and went ballistic on one of the Joker's mental patient henchmen, foreshadowing the tragedy meant to befall him. The inventive way Nolan devised for Dent to lose half his face - to flames instead of acid - and become Harvey Two-Face, along with the runner of where the name came from, were light years better than the comic book's explanation of a mob boss throwing acid at Dent's face during a trial (as depicted hilariously in Batman Forever). It's tragic, operatic stuff and it works brilliantly. We truly feel for Dent, how he suffered, what he's lost. The special effects for the "scarred" side of Two-Face are grotesquely persuasive.

Perhaps even moreso than Batman, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, for my money the MVP) emerges as the true hero of Gotham City. Half of The Dark Knight is a cop procedural, with Gordon front and center, making the hard calls, facing down mobsters and madmen alike. The difficulties of Gordon's job leading the police in the most corrupt city in America, the frustations he faces, the dangers he and his family endure, the compromises he is forced to make, have never been clearer or more compelling. Gordon pulled off the most shocking moment in his film when he faked his death and apprehended the Joker. (Yes, there was a moment when I did actually think Nolan had busted the ballsiest move in Batman movie history and killed Gordon off.) The climactic events where Batman saved Gordon's son's life stamped the friendship and understanding the two men have. In certain ways, Gordon's job is more difficult than Batman's. Gordon shares the burden of protecting Gotham with Batman but has the added pressures of having to publicly justify and secretly protect Batman himself, especially going forward into future Batman movies.

Replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes was a savvy casting decision. Her pretty pout and perpetual headlights aside, Holmes merely (or barely, or hardly, depending on who you ask) held her own in Batman Begins. Gyllenhaal, a superior actor, immediately made the pivotal Rachel character her own. She was convincing as an assistant D.A. convincing Zau to turn state's evidence. More importantly, Gyllenhaal made Rachel a woman worthy of both Bruce Wayne's and Harvey Dent's affections, so much so that her death was a heartbreaker (the audience would probably have applauded if it were Holmes who died). Although the single most unbelievable event in the entire movie is when Batman dove off Wayne Tower after the Joker defenestrated Rachel. They plummeted dozens of stories, crashed into a car, and were both completely unharmed. Sure.

The action in The Dark Knight is superior to Batman Begins', though some of Batman's fight scenes seemed awkward in how limited Bale and his stuntmen could move in the Batsuits, old or new. There's no shortage of car chases and explosions -- an exceptional one was the Joker comically exploding a hospital. Whereas the previous film presented Batman the way a horror movie would -- jump cuts of action from the shadows that were impossible to follow -- The Dark Knight shows Batman's full fighting capabilities, as well as how much he gets hurt. Attack dogs are not the Batman's best friend. Batman is properly injured, and quite a bit too, the most bizarre example being when he coudn't bring himself to run the Joker over with his Bat-Pod and ended up crashing into the overturned trailer truck, knocking himself out in the process. The last time Batman spent this much time on his back in a movie, Catwoman was straddling him and purring about mistletoe.

The presence of the Joker notwithstanding, humor is at a premium. There's nothing funny about living in Nolan's Gotham City, much less trying to protect it. Bruce Wayne's millionaire playboy facade of concurrently dating prima ballerinas and handfuls of supermodels seems to be as much about amusing himself and the audience as providing an alibi for how Wayne is above suspicion as Batman. Does Wayne sleep with any of these girls, though? Seems like there'd be gossip if he didn't. Maybe he pays them off to keep their mouths shut. Or maybe Alfred finishes what Wayne started.

The finale of the movie is devastating. Before The Dark Knight, the bleakest chapter in Batman's cinematic journey was Batman Returns. The concluding events of The Dark Knight eclipse Tim Burton's singular vision of emotionally cracked animal-people living in a freak show. At the end of Batman Returns, Batman is so very sad because he thinks his girlfriend is dead on Christmas. Well, come what may. The Dark Knight pushes the pathos far beyond. Rachel is dead, and thanks to Alfred, Wayne will never know she had moved on. Add Dent's descent to madness plus the end of Batman's detente with the local authorities and no movie Batman has ever lost more. 

In the end, Batman chooses to be an armor-clad Atlas, shouldering the hopes, guilt, and dark secrets of the entire city. Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent's mistakes so he can die a hero, while Batman becomes a hunted vigilante once more. No movie Batman has ever willingly re-examined his purpose in Gotham like this. As Alfred sagely advised, Batman is the one who can make the hardest choices. Harvey Dent promised that "it's always darkest just before the dawn." I think this Batman, our best Batman, has come to understand that for him, no light of dawn will ever break his dark nights.