Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Film Review: The Dark Knight

Let's get a few things straight, shall we?

Heath Ledger's performance isn't the greatest of all time. It's not the best portrayal of a villain of all time. It’s not the best performance in this movie. Frankly, it's not even the best portrayal of a villain in this movie.

Similarly, The Dark Knight isn't the best film ever made. It's not the best superhero movie ever made. It’s not the best superhero movie of this year. Shit, it’s not even the best Batman film ever made.

What The Dark Knight is, is a very enjoyable film that suffers from being seriously overhyped and seriously overlong.

The movie opens with Gotham (all too obviously modern day Chicago) in a mess. By attempting to bring order to the city, Batman has provoked the thugs. The mob are running riot and have corrupted the police department. The Joker, who cares not for money and only for chaos, looms large - intimidating everyone, including the gangsters.

Bruce Wayne and the noble Lt. James Gordon decide to rally behind new District Attorney Harvey Dent and position him as Gotham’s true crime-fighting hero. Batman even contemplates retirement but the Joker won’t let him; he needs him to play with, telling the caped crusader, “You complete me.”

It’s a terrific conflict; arguably the best dynamic in comics and it’s unfortunate that only half the duo have turned up here. Ledger, while not quite living up to the over the top posthumous praise, trumps Jack Nicholson by delivering the definitive screen version of the Joker but Christian Bale turns in his worst ever performance as a placid, ineffective Bruce Wayne.

The silly, raspy Bat-whisper returns from Batman Begins but the unvaried inflection grates even more than it did last time out. As Wayne, Bale also falls short, certainly when stacked up against the summer’s other billionaire superhero playboy: Robert Downey Jr’s exceptional take on Tony Stark.

Bale aside, the rest of the cast are superb. Having traded-up from mong-mouthed Scientology fertility chamber Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal, the character of Rachel Dawes finally has meaning. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine clearly relish their roles as gadget guru Lucius Fox and Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred. But while it’s Ledger who has stolen the plaudits, it’s Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart who truly steal this movie.

Oldman’s James Gordon is the moral centre of the piece and is played masterfully by a man who has made a career from playing psychopaths, while Eckhart’s descent from handsome, righteous Harvey Dent into twisted, bitter Two-Face is thrilling and terrifying to watch. You suspect had either one died during the post-production, they’d be ahead of Ledger in the queue for an Oscar.

With such a stellar cast largely at their top of their game, it’s a real shame that the story doesn’t reach the same heights. At 152 minutes, The Dark Knight is at least half-an-hour too long and there are entire sections of the film (notably the Infernal Affairs-esque jaunt to Hong Kong) that should’ve been left out of the final edit.

The other, larger problem is that The Dark Knight is in a constant state of climax; sprinting from one set piece to another with no pause or respite to amp the tension back up. The perpetual frenzy means even the outstanding Batpod chase scene is exhausting and suffocating, while the bass-heavy score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard thuds and pounds frantically along even when nothing is happening on the screen.

Christopher Nolan spends a lot of film’s final moments setting up the series’ third instalment but by basing his vision of Gotham on the comics Year One, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, he needs the presence of the Joker. Will Nolan see it as disrespectful to recast? And, if so, would anybody want the role? It’s easy to imagine Johnny Depp having the balls to step into the face paint but Heath Ledger lookalike Joseph Gordon-Levitt might prove a better substitute. Nolan has already ruled out using Robin in any of his films, but Lucius Fox’s line about the new Batsuit being “cat-proof” would suggest that Catwoman will be making an appearance.

Though The Dark Knight is too arrhythmic and indulgent to be considered the consummate Batman movie, Nolan has already worked wonders to make us forget about Joel Schmacher’s Batman & Robin debacle. If he can do the same with Halle Berry’s equally execrable Catwoman, he’ll have performed a miracle.

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