Christopher Nolan. 2008.
12:15am Friday July 18. The Landmark.
Where did this come from? Christopher Nolan has never impressed me with his films and maybe the biggest mess in his entire canon was Batman Begins, so my expectations should never have been high for this follow-up. But they were. The inspired casting of Heath Ledger and the terrific trailers seemed to promise that Nolan had learned a thing or two after the previous installment and was going to be firing on all cylinders this time around. Thankfully, that’s exactly the case and The Dark Knight is the best film I’ve seen this summer by far. Sorry Wall-E. Using the mythology from the comic books, Nolan clearly sets his sights on duality as the theme of the film. Not just the two sides of good and evil personified by Batman and The Joker, but also the two sides of good and evil within every one of these characters that wears a mask, figurative or metaphorical, to hide their true identity. These notions are not particularly new or revolutionary to the Batman franchise on screen, and they are pounded into your head by the end of the 152 minute runtime, but Nolan and co. treat them so seriously, that it’s hard not to get involved. I’m not a big Batman or comic book fan so I’m not gonna say that the filmmakers finally treated the material with the respect it deserves, but I will say that they finally treated the material with the respect that I deserve. This is what I want to see when I go to a film about heroes and villains.
This is first and foremost an action film, and the action sequences are incredible. Employing little to no CGI-effects and shooting on location does wonders for the realism of every car crash, explosion and fist fight. And no set piece is treated any differently than the rest. In other words, it’s never clear to me that the filmmakers spent extra special care on this sequence or that one because they knew that it was the centerpiece of their film. In fact, it doesn’t seem like they considered the audience much at all, but always considered the story. The action happens only when it needs to and never becomes over-the-top or ludicrously staged. The score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is perfection, always present but rarely more than a driving hum or percussion beat pulsating under the visuals until the appropriate time to swell. Cinematography and editing are also top notch, adding to the feeling that everyone just brought their absolute A-game to this project. The script is tight, and every minor character in this ensemble gets an opportunity to express themselves as a real individual.
Some actors seize their opportunities and others don’t. Christian Bale is growing into his role as Bruce Wayne nicely, and his Batman remains the axis on which the whole film turns, which is a key element to why the previous incarnations failed. That’s not to say that the villains don’t steal the show, it’s just that everything comes back to Batman in the end. Heath Ledger is phenomenal but that’s not really very surprising. The scene that introduces his Joker to a legion of mobsters is successful on nearly every level, employing a short spurt of violence that all at once gives the fans the entrance they clearly wanted and setting up the audience to believe that at any moment this character is on screen, something horrific could happen. This is a chilling, complete performance that runs the risk of overshadowing some of the other terrific work being done in the film. Aaron Eckhart has a decidedly harder role to play and does it brilliantly. While Ledger’s Joker allowed him to play it almost any way he could have wanted and get away with it, Harvey Dent has to win the hearts of the people and then break them with his emotional and physical transformation. Gary Oldman and Michael Caine also prove why they are the legends that they are. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman seem to have left their best work in other places. I never thought Katie Holmes was so terrible in Batman Begins and actually wished she was back to complete the continuity of the cast.
Nolan’s script falls apart any time there’s a mob and he decides to give a few of them lines. The actor who spouted, “No more dead cops!” needs to get his SAG card taken away, pronto. And I know that it’s faithful to the comics but for a film that goes so far out of its way to be based in reality as to have Christian Bale use a sometimes laughable “Batman voice”, why is Two Face wearing a half singed suit? It makes him look stupid. Let the man have a half singed face and a nice, complete suit. I guess they know that the slight irritation from people like me is nothing compared to the wrath of the nerds that would be unleashed for a decision like that. There’s also an instance of bat sonar used in an action sequence that seemed completely unnecessary and incomprehensible to me. It felt like it was way more convenient to use for the filmmakers than it was for the characters, but it’s a small gripe compared to the big picture. All in all, I can’t wait to see the film again and experience the emotions it put me through. Compared to the empty flash of garbage like Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Dark Knight just makes everyone else trying to make blockbuster entertainment seem foolish. Particularly Joel Schumacher, who actually believed his incarnations of Mr. Freeze and the Riddler were in any way acceptable to someone over the age of 5. I respect the way Christopher Nolan made this film and the effort that every single member of the crew put into it because it shows in every frame.