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The Dark Knight (2008)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
  • Director: Christopher Nolan
  • Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
  • Length: 152 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.

Looking back three years ago, it was clear that Christopher Nolan had rebooted a flailing franchise. However, when The Dark Knight, the first of the series not to feature the Batman name in the title, went into production, many expected it to be good, but few would have predicted it to be the best.

Christian Bale reprises his role as The Batman, the masked crimefighter who helped save the city from his mentor's insane plan in Batman Begins. His work to thwart the Mafia at every turn has been further complicated by a new element, an enemy whose brilliance is tempered by his insanity.

He calls himself The Joker (Heath Ledger) and from the very beginning of the film, his cunning is evident. The opening scene surrounds a daylight robbery of a mob bank that he engineered. Every detail is meticulously planned all the way down to the final detail of his unrecognizable escape vehicle. And from that point forward, there isn't a single action he takes that doesn't filter through the entire film until the absorbing conclusion.

Ledger's performance is manic and gripping, making Jack Nicholson's turn in the original Tim Burton Batman seem like a dinner theater act. It isn't the greatest of his career (that distinction still belongs to Brokeback Mountain), but it is one of his finest. When I first heard he was going to be taking on the role I was a touch reluctant, but from his past films I knew he would be able to pull it off convincingly. Others did not share that opinion and many even scoffed at the idea. But like his character, Ledger would have gotten the last.

The top-notch cast from the first film remains largely intact, though Bale seems a bit more bedraggled since his original turn, which almost fits into the character's psyche. Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox have improved since the first outing, but Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon has managed to follow Bale's performance trajectory downward.

A noticeable improvement to the cast is the replacement of the rather wooden Katie Holmes with talented thesp Maggie Gyllenhaal as Bruce's ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes. But it isn't her performance that most closely approaches the quality of Ledger's. It's the performance of Aaron Eckhart as Gotham's White Knight, the District Attorney responsible for prosecuting the nastiest criminals and getting them off the streets. His strong and eventually conflicted performance is almost as powerful as Ledger's. Eckhart adds a balancing force between Batman and The Joker, making for a successful triptych.

The screenplay written by sibling writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan is superb. It's the classiest, grittiest and most evocative script ever penned for a superhero film. Making the classic battle of good vs. evil a more nuanced affair, the Nolans create a story that oftentimes parallels the difficulties in the real world. Exploring themes like morality, eavesdropping, terrorism and organized crime, The Dark Knight takes the genre into a whole new direction probing deeper than any of its predecessors ever have.

If the film has weaknesses, it's the heavy-handedness of some plot elements mixed with some continuity and logic issues with the plot. Someone who hasn't seen the film may not understand these issues, but they are there and make for some thorny conversations with the devoted.

The Dark Knight is a classic, plain and simple. It may not be the most evocative crime drama ever imagined, but it's easily the best of the franchise and is easily one of the best graphic novel/comic book adaptations of all time.