We enjoyed director Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins. We were viscerally exhilarated by the sequel, The Dark Knight. We’re talking numerous audience ovations after, perhaps, the best and most spectacular action, chase, and aerial sequences…ever. Nolan has really hit his stride with this one – not just the epic scale, as Hollywood has never been shy about throwing money away at action and effects, but the aesthetic and artistic levels reached in terms of camera and editing nuances – those brilliant, capping shots of Batman’s cape rippling behind him as his Bat Cycle speeds away from the explosions. It’s delicious to watch.
The story begins with a fast-paced bank heist by killer clowns who manage to steal – as they kill each other off – the savings of Gotham City’s various crime families (not too far from today’s news, as we look at the banking/hedge fund mess). Things only get worse for the crime bosses, as a crazy-looking character named the Joker inserts himself and gives the gangsters a reality check: they’re all screwed until their ultra nemesis, Batman, is dealt with. And only the Joker can unmask the dark crusader.
Things in Batman’s universe are already complicated enough, as his daytime alter-persona, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), still pines for for his ex, comely Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who works for – and goes with – handsome new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), whose job includes arresting vigilates…like Batman. But crusty cop Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) understands the need for legal compromises, if society is to be kept safe – and he doesn’t hesitate to flip on that old spotlight, casting a bat shadow on the sky, to summon the dark Dirty Harry when innocent lives need saving.
The Joker’s plan, however, is to destroy innocent lives and terrorize Gotham, until Batman is forced to reveal his true identity. We’re not going to reveal much more of the plot, but there’s plenty of it – perhaps a bit too much at 152 minutes; Batman Begins ran at 140 minutes, which probably would have been just right for the sequel. But that’s our only quibble with an otherwise highly entertaining film, punctuated by great performances and absolutely stunning sequences.
Cast is all-around excellent. Christian Bale is a fine fit in his bat-suit, as he reprises his role as the caped crusader. His Bruce Wayne has all the panache a rich, handsome billionaire could ever need. His Batman smashes away at evil, regardless of laws and any form of regulation, while sardonically echoing the Joker: “You either die a hero…or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Eckhart is a convincing politico on the rise, dealing with moral dilemmas and inner demons while struggling with relationship issues. His gal Rachel, well-played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, still harbors a flame for the bat guy but won’t act on it. We must confess that Katie Holmes, who played Rachel in Batman Begins, was missed, but Gyllenhaal soon won us over. We cared for her character and didn’t want to see her hurt -physically or emotionally.
Gary Oldman, one of the foremost versatile actors of our time, reprises his role as a likable cop in a moral and legal pressure-cooker. Morgan Freeman does a great Morgan Freeman, reprising Wayne’s unflappable right-hand man, Lucious Fox. Michael Caine does a great Michael Caine also, reprising Wayne’s unflappable butler, Alfred Pennyworth. (But hey! Who’s complaining? Caine and Freeman are such a pleasure to watch on the screen.)
And then we have Heath Ledger as the Joker. He steals the show. While his scar-mouthed villain is insanely over-the-top in terms of mugging, facial tongue ticks, and general scenery-chewing, one somehow still believes the character. When Batman beats the holy crap out of him (inside the police station, as Gotham’s finest look the other way) at a certain point, regardless of his crimes and cruelty, you actually don’t want to see him hurt more. Utterly mad…but still human. A sublimely original and layered performance. This is tour-de-force acting and a screen villain one never forgets. All the more tragic that Ledger is gone. His Joker is so exraordinary that next January 22nd – the one-year anniversary of his death – we predict he could become the seventh actor in history to earn a posthumous Oscar nomination. “He may be the first [post-humous] actor since Peter Finch to actually win the damn thing,” said Gary Oldman.
Despite an extra “fifth-act” plot turn or two, The Dark Knight delivers everything one might ask for in a Hollywood summer blockbuster. When the Hans Zimmer/James Howard score revs up at the end and Batman revs up his Bat-Cylce and tears off into the night – that dark cape rippling behind him – you know you have just experienced some major entertainment.