Stunning. Spectacular. Extraordinary.
Pick your adjective. They all apply to "The Dark Knight" and to the late Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker. As the arch-villain says to a mobster, "This town needs a better class of criminal, and I'm gonna give it to them."
But the movie is about more than a criminal who churns through Gotham City, leaving a trail of death, anarchy and chaos. It's about the line between lawman and lawbreaker, between hero and villain, between bringing people to justice and turning into a vigilante, and what a good man -- or men -- will do when faced with soul-shattering loss.
As more than one character says: "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
4 stars = Outstanding
- Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine.
- Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.
- Web site: thedarkknight.warnerbros.com
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In the past, there was a clear delineation about where Bruce Wayne ended and Batman began. This time, as Bruce (Christian Bale) sits in his penthouse clad in his Batman suit but without his cowl, we see that one is sliding, dangerously, into the other. It's only fitting in a movie in which Batman considers unmasking himself and in which the idea of two sides of a coin, of a face and of a personality, are explored.
And it's only right that Alfred (Michael Caine) is witness to this sight, since the butler had cautioned, "Know your limits, Master Wayne," to which the billionaire playboy had responded, "Batman has no limits." And Alfred, observing the bruises on Bruce's back, corrected, "Well, you do."
In case you've been holed up in the Bat-Bunker for the past half-year, "Dark Knight" is the sequel to 2005's "Batman Begins," which dramatized how Bruce Wayne became the Caped Crusader after his parents were murdered. Director Christopher Nolan wastes no time on flashbacks but, like Batman leaping off a skyscraper into the inky night, swoops right into the story.
As the movie opens, Gotham City is in the grip of both a crime wave and chorus of nagging questions about Batman. Television news reports taunt, "Batman: Crusader or menace?" as he is faced with copycats -- "I'm not wearing hockey pants," he tells one ill-clad imitator -- along with crooks at home and abroad, plus a criminal who lives by no rules in The Joker.
His face is covered with sloppily applied white pancake makeup, smeared red lipstick creepily curling toward his cheekbones, his eyes encircled with exaggerated black smudges. It's an outward sign of the disorder and damage in his life.
The Joker gives two distinct stories on how his face was scarred, both including the chilling phrase "Why so serious?," which dominated promotional posters for months.
He sows the seeds of chaos everywhere he goes and proposes that mobsters kill the Batman. His plot plays out against District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), literally a golden-haired boy who provides a nice physical counterpoint to Bale, romancing Bruce's childhood friend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and trying to clean up Gotham City crime and corruption.
Harvey appears on the brink of success when The Joker starts wreaking havoc and horror. "The Dark Knight" ends on a dark night and arrives with a well-deserved PG-13 rating for intense sequences of violence and some menace.
Although there are a couple of well-placed laughs, some characters die or are disfigured, and children are kidnapped and threatened with death. Even Bale suggests it's best for children at least 9 years old and up.
Working from a screenplay he wrote with brother Jonathan Nolan, the director doesn't repeat himself or provide a tortured motivation for The Joker. As Alfred says, recounting an episode from his past, "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
In IMAX, especially, Nolan immerses moviegoers in expansive backdrops, be they Hong Kong or Chicago, which subs for Gotham City. With a little help from gadget genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Batman finds a new way to hitch an airplane ride and he gets not only a new place to live but a new Batsuit and a Bat-Pod, which allows him to roar through the city and even ride up a wall and flip back down like Donald O'Connor in "Singin' in the Rain."
Bale made the role of Batman his own three years ago and he masterfully drives even deeper into it here. He's surrounded by class and skill in Caine, Freeman, Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, Eckhart and Gyllenhaal, but it's Ledger who provides the movie's dark heart.
Watching his frenetic motions, odd little walk (Chaplinesque in one scene) and habit of working his tongue as he licks his scars and hearing his devious cackle, it's astonishing to realize this is the same actor who played Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain" and the title role in "Casanova."
Yes, he deserves the Oscar talk. Not because he died at age 28 but because he's hauntingly good at creating an indelible character. If a movie is only as good as its villain, then "Dark Knight" is a winner, hands down.
Opens at 12:01 a.m. Friday, with many early shows already sold out.
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1632. First Published July 17, 2008 4:00 AM