"Dark Knight" a gripping character study

Mon Jul 7, 2008 5:48am EDT
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "The Dark Knight" is pure adrenaline. Director Christopher Nolan, having dispensed with the introspective, moody origin story of 2005's "Batman Begins," now puts the Caped Crusader through a decathlon of explosions, vehicle flips, hand-to-hand combat, midair rescues and pulse-pounding suspense.

Nolan is one of our smarter directors. He builds movies around ideas and characters, and "Dark Knight" is no exception. The ideas here are not new to the movie world of cops and criminal, but in the context of a comic book movie, they ring out with startling clarity. In other words, you expect moralistic underpinnings in a Martin Scorsese movie; in a Batman movie, they hit home with renewed vigor.

None of this artistic achievement denies the re-energized Warner Bros./DC Comics franchise its commercial muscle. Those bags of money in the movie's opening bank heist are nothing compared with the worldwide boxoffice haul "Dark Knight" will take from theaters following its July 18 release via Warner Bros. Repeat viewings are a certainty.

Repeat viewings might also be a necessity. That adrenaline rush comes at a cost: With the film's race-car pace, noise levels, throbbing music and density of stratagems, no one will follow all the plot points at first glance.

"Dark Knight" revolves around notions of the yin and yang between Hero and Villain and of those gray areas where social conscience and individuality collide. Thinking logically, Nolan and his co-writer/brother Jonathan, working from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, imagine that the heroism of Bruce Wayne's Batman (a returning and very buff Christian Bale) is a double-edged sword. (A theme the current "Hancock" toyed with but badly mucked up.) Cleaning up the streets of Gotham City turns the crime cartels into an even more dangerous beast that, once cornered, resorts to its own doomsday machine: the maniacally clever and criminally amoral Joker (the late Heath Ledger). And vigilante justice is nonetheless "justice" from outside the law. So who or what polices him?

Running for cover, the mob head (Eric Roberts) first takes refuge with a Hong Kong crime mogul (Chin Han). Then when Batman takes him down, he and his fellow mobsters hold their noses and in desperation settle on a man who knows no rules and plays everyone against one another. The Joker relishes the assignment precisely because of his "admiration" for the Dark Knight. In one key confrontation, the Joker purrs to Batman, like a bride to a groom, "You complete me." The criminal clown, his makeup designed to emphasize his facial deformations, sees in a man dressed up in a bat suit "a freak like me."

Seemingly on the side of good are the city's White Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart); his girlfriend/Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) -- and, if you recall from "Batman Begins," Bruce Wayne's longtime love -- and police Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). But loyalties are easily dislodged by threats or money. The Joker's true purpose, besides amusing himself trying to outwit Batman, is to see if he can "turn" the White Knight to his dark side.

One wishes Nolan had cast a different actor than Eckhart as this White Knight. Although very good at playing duplicitousness and irony -- witness "Thank You for Smoking" -- Eckhart never quite seems the crusader presumably intended. He will, of course, turn into Two-Face, but you sense this propensity too early.   Continued...

<p>An actor dressed as Batman is seen during the shooting of the latest Batman movie "The Dark Knight" on International Finance Center Tower 2 in Hong Kong November 9, 2007. REUTERS/Herbert Tsang</p>