Slick and stylish, The Dark Knight starts out as a comic-book action movie, but somewhere around the middle of the opening bank-robbery sequence, it takes a serious turn and becomes an exploration of vigilante justice and the rights of the individual versus the safety of the community.
There are no bubblegum-colored comic panels here; the most brightly colored element of director Christopher Nolan s film is the garish makeup worn by a psychotic killer.
The description film noir comes to mind.
That s a term that a lot of people use but some may not really know what it means. Film noir translated to black film was a phrase used by the French in the 1940s to refer to the hard-boiled style of crime thriller that was popular during that era. Over time, the definition has become more fluid, but it generally includes gritty gangster films, police procedurals, and social-problem movies. Billy Wilder s Double Indemnity, Roman Polanski s Chinatown, Lawrence Kasdan s Body Heat, and Sam Mendes more recent Road to Perdition are all examples of film noir.
Nolan s The Dark Knight, a sequel to his 2005 film Batman Begins, is a worthy addition.
The director, who co-wrote the script with his brother, Jonathan, forgoes the laughs in The Dark Knight except for a bit of bantering between Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christopher Bale) and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). Instead, he ramps up the action and the nightmarish elements of a city under siege, personified by Heath Ledger as the Joker.
When Ledger died in January of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, the entertainment media wondered about the fate of The Dark Knight. Would it suffer from its association with the late actor? Should it be scrapped in his honor?
Warner Bros. decided to go ahead with the film, and it s the right decision. Ledger disappears under his makeup, so there s really no sense of ghoulishness. And at the end, when viewers have time to reflect, they will realize they ve seen one of the most astounding acting performances in recent memory.
With the garish clown makeup hastily applied to cover scars that go from the corner of his mouth to his cheekbones, the darting eyes, the yellowed teeth, the flicking tongue, the Joker is evil incarnate, a villain who doesn t kill or destroy for money or fame or power. He does it because he can.
Christian Bale, above, as Batman and Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Photo by Stephen Vaughan and TM / Stephen Vaughan Enlarge
This puts into play the power struggle between the police and Batman, who play by (at least some) rules, and the Joker, who spurns rules and embraces anarchy.
The Dark Knight takes up the storyline of Batman Begins. Drug dealers and criminals still work in Gotham City, but it s not nearly as lucrative as it once was. Criminals are just too afraid of Batman. And, truth be told, the establishment is uneasy about him, too. His crime-fighting, although it gets results, is under no one s control, and such independence is scary.
But there s hope on the horizon. Straight-arrow Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is the new district attorney, and he s determined to clean up the city using all the legal means at his disposal.
This does not sit well with the drug syndicate in town, led by the Chechan (Ritchie Coster) and the Italian (Eric Roberts). And when a major sting operation captures hundreds of the drug dealers employees, the syndicate hires the Joker to put Batman and the rest of the good guys, including Dent, Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the assistant D.A. Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes), out of business.
There are more than enough explosions, car chases, and cool special effects in The Dark Knight to suit the most ardent action fan, but the movie is more about the people than pyrotechnics or cool gadgets.
Bale continued to deserve major credit for making a comic-book character believable, and he s helped immensely by the acting masters Caine and Morgan Freeman, who reprises his role as Lucius Wells, who helps Bruce Wayne develop the equipment he needs to work as Batman.
Oldman continues to develop the character of Jim Gordon, who, in the first film, was an incorruptible cop and the first to recognize Batman as a force for good. In The Dark Knight, he has been promoted to head of the special crimes unit. He and Dent have a history: Once the head of Internal Affairs, Dent often investigated Gordon s officers, and the pair clashed. Now that Dent is the D.A. and the city s golden boy, Gordon is forced to work more closely with him, and it s not an easy alliance.
Eckhart, whose first big movie was as the biker George, Julia Roberts love interest in Erin Brockovich and more recently starred with Catherine Zeta-Jones in No Reservations, proves that he s worth meatier roles. As the white knight of Gotham City, Dent suffers horrifying physical and emotional trauma that allows him to demonstrate just how fine the line is between good and evil.
And then there s Ledger, who owns every scene he s in, whether he s coolly giving someone a chance to survive but be horribly maimed or is just sitting in a jail cell, waiting for something to happen.
The Dark Knight isn t perfect, but it s close. It s overly long two and a half hours occasionally confusing, and once in a while it s too dark (as in lack of light), making it hard to see what s going on. The film carries a PG-13 rating, and although there are no great spurts of blood or gore, it s scary enough to be rated R.
These are minor quibbles, however, in the overall experience.
Sometimes it s easy to overlook the message in a film and just enjoy the action, but not here, as Nolan, Bale, Ledger, Eckhart, and compatriots take viewers on a compelling journey through moral ambiguity and the masks we all wear.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6130.