Sunday, October 12, 2008
The Dark Knight (2008)
(Image from IMP Awards)
The Dark Knight (2008)
After smashing virtually every significant box office record known to man or bat, 'The Dark Knight' wasted little time in establishing itself as the biggest film of the year. Director Christopher Nolan's follow up to his excellent 'Batman Begins' is a phenomenon not just in terms of raking in the moola but also in terms of critical cred, with the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator giving it a 94% fresh rating. So, does this cinematic behemoth live up to all of the hype and expectation? Well, sort of - there are some caveats.
Set a year after the events in 'Begins', 'Dark Knight' establishes early on that Batman (Christian Bale) has spent that time cleaning up much of Gotham City. He has teamed up with Detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who now heads his own special hand picked unit within the Police Department, and together they've been cracking down on organized crime. Meanwhile Gotham's dashing new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), proves to be an unlikely ally, a man who really is as noble and virtuous as his nickname, the 'White Knight', suggests. As these three men slowly tighten the noose around the remnants of the criminal underworld, billionaire Bruce Wayne begins to believe that he can soon retire Batman for good and leave the city in the capable hands of Gordon and Dent. He hopes to reunite with his old flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), despite the minor fact that she is - to his chagrin - with Dent. Of course, this wouldn't be much of a story if things went according to plan, and the unexpected and rapid rise to power of a twisted criminal psycopath calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) acts as the spanner in the works; the Joker's intelligence and ruthlessness make him a deadly foe, and he sets about systematically bringing Gotham City to its knees.
That summary only skims the intricate plot as there are so many little substories and characters in the mix that it's a minor miracle the film manages to stay as coherent as it does. It's an incredibly layered story that touches on every conceivable aspect of Gotham society. In many ways 'Dark Knight' is less a superhero film and more a crime thriller that just happens to take place in Gotham City and feature Batman and the Joker as major characters. This is made evident right from the opening scene that depicts a thrilling bank robbery that would have been just as at home in a non superhero film (and apparently it was inspired by Michael Mann's 'Heat').
Also made evident from the outset is the unrestrained brutality and capriciousness that permeates the film - anyone who thought the first one was dark is in for a surprise. Nolan's decision to keep things reality based continues, with far out technology and over the top action set pieces making themselves felt only sparingly. Unfortunately, there are a couple of techie elements that are completely over the top (one involving mobile phones that comes across as a clumsy commentary on privacy rights) that they take you right out of the film, sort of like the first film's moisture vapourizer device. Fortunately the focus is almost always on character, drama, and plot, the film's true strengths, and not faux technology. Also worth noting is that the city of Gotham is, for perhaps the first time, realistic instead of stylized, which also helps instill a sense of this being a conventional drama and not a comic book tale.
Which brings me to one of my problems with the film - the fight scenes. While they flow naturally as an integral part of the story, the hand to hand combat scenes that crop up quite regularly are surprisingly mediocre. It's almost like Nolan had to meet a quota of fisticuffs and threw in repetitive scenes of Batman punching people to meet it. Even the vehicular combat scenes are sometimes a tad underwhelming. This is a relatively minor quibble however, as much of the build up and action is tense and thrilling, but a noticeable one nonetheless.
A dark atmosphere enshrouds the entire film, from the lighting to the production design right down to the dour expression on Christian Bale's chiseled visage, but as the death toll rises and hope fades for our heroes the script still manages to throw in a few comedic quips here and there, and while not all of them work they do prevent the whole enterprise from becoming a frown fest. Another aspect worthy of praise is how even minor characters are well drawn out and memorable, a combination of good casting and writing. The main characters are infused with surprising amounts of depth given how busy the film is in general, and their individual storylines bring to the fore the film's themes of hope and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming corruption and anarchy, as well as playing around with the concept of duality (in one case, quite literally). The story deals directly with the concept of good being overwhelmed by evil, but manages to make situations murky and complex instead of clear cut, although I can't help but question some of Batman's views on his right to use any means he deems necessary!
The plot twists and turns, which brings me to another problem - the excess of schemes! The film is a tad too long and could have done without quite so many overly clever schemes by the Joker; the excess cheapens the effect and by the end one almost feels completely unsurprised when the Joker 'surprises' everyone for the umpteenth time. It's to the film's credit then that the Joker's final scheme is still gripping despite the fact that everyone knew one was coming.
The performance everyone's been talking about is that of the late Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime, and it really is phenomenal. Ledger is almost unrecognizable, and not just because of the makeup. At no point does the Joker seem like anything less than an unhinged maniac ready to go off, but at the same time he manages to appear both brilliant and disturbingly likable (or maybe that's just me). You can call it showy, but everything from the odd mannerisms to the sneering voice are absolutely spot on, and I think it's hard to argue against the notion that this is the definitive live action incarnation of the character; it's easy to see why some are calling Ledger's Joker one of the all time great villains of cinema.
While ostensibly the star of the film, Christian Bale is much more subdued than the others around him; don't get me wrong, he's pretty good in the dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne, but both of those characters are overshadowed by the Joker, Dent, and even Gordon. And, there is something a little off about his face as Batman - he looks a little chunky, and there's something odd about the way his mouth hangs open when he talks! Gary Oldman makes the most of a supporting role to make Gordon an upright, tough and resourceful policeman pushed to his limits by the madness around him, while Aron Eckhart uses the natural charisma that made him such a likable sleezebag in 'Thank You For Smoking' to good effect to make Harvey Dent believable despite being impossibly noble. The four principal actors head a cast that also includes the likes of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal and many others, all of whom do solid work.
There are some other minor quibbles that I ought to raise - the gruff voice of Batman works at times but seems strangely out of place at others; the music is decent if unmemorable, though the disconcerting music that accompanies the Joker is a memorable highlight; and the plot, with all its twists and turns, might not hold up under close scrutiny during repeat viewings. These are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise very good film, easily one of the best superhero films yet made and a worthy successor to 'Batman Begins' that improves upon it in nearly every way. It's one of those rarities that manages to satisfy as an action film without being dumbed down and without sacrificing character or thematic depth. It's not the masterpiece that some seem to be calling it, but it is very good, and well worth any movie fan's time!