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'The Dark Knight'

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Posted: Friday, July 25, 2008 10:00 pm

Everyone knew "The Dark Knight" would be a major success. Between the brilliant marketing, glowing reviews and incredible hype surrounding the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, there was no way this wouldn't be one of the biggest hits of the summer movie season.

But, as we've seen this past week, it has surpassed all expectations and become an immediate pop culture phenomenon that people can't seem to stop talking about. The film's status as perhaps the most revered Hollywood blockbuster of the past 10 years is evident in not only the box office numbers (as of press time, "The Dark Knight" was expected to make more money in its first week than its predecessor, "Batman Begins," grossed during its entire domestic run), but also in viewers' reactions.

At the sold-out evening screening I attended in a theater usually packed full of annoying miscreants, you could hear a pin drop the second the title flashed on screen. In coffee houses, in restaurants, in supermarket lines, people are talking about the film in a manner I've never seen from the general movie-going public. My father, who hasn't been to the theater in longer than I can even remember, attended a midnight screening on opening day. The movie isn't just generating excitement - it's commanding respect.

That respect can be largely attributed to Ledger, whose death ensured that "The Dark Knight" would be viewed not just as an "event" movie, but as the swan song of an enormously talented actor who was always the best part of whatever film he was in. However, even if he had not died, I believe Ledger's turn as the Joker would still be hailed as an unparalleled achievement. (As much as it pains me to say it, he makes Jack Nicholson's performance in Tim Burton's original "Batman" look like a bad joke by comparison.) He threw himself into this role with reckless abandon, and through that passion created an iconic character who will be forever cited as one of cinema's greatest villains.

His work here reminds me of Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in last year's "There Will Be Blood." As written, both roles seem completely ridiculous. Yet, like Day-Lewis, Ledger was able to strike a perfect balance between subtlety and bold theatrics, often in the same scene. Take the already infamous "pencil scene," in which the Joker calmly denies his own insanity right after doing away with an assailant in the most crazy manner imaginable. It's absurd, but he sells it. It's an inventive, daring performance that will likely stand as the year's best, and if Oscar voters deny Ledger a posthumous award, the outcry will be deafening.

Of course, Ledger's is a supporting performance, and there's a litany of other factors that qualify "The Dark Knight" as a near-masterpiece. Chief among them is the film's dark, serious tone, which allows the movie to serve not as just another fluffy comic book adaptation, but as a serious crime film that echoes works like "Heat" and "L.A. Confidential." This is a film that places emphasis on characters and themes, not fight scenes and loud explosions (although there are still enough of those to please action junkies). It's disturbing, it's philosophical and it's talky - but it's also a hoot, provided you like your popcorn thrills with a side of realism.

"The Dark Knight" picks up soon after "Batman Begins" ended. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) continues to don the public image of clueless billionaire playboy while he spends nights cleaning up the streets of Gotham City as the elusive vigilante Batman. With police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) unofficially on Batman's side, and with hotshot District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) inspiring ordinary citizens to join the fight against crime and corruption, things are finally looking up for Gotham City.

Enter the Joker, a cartoonish maniac whose only goal is to derail these efforts and put the city back on the road to destruction. He has no past and no logical motivation - he is, as he puts it, simply an agent of chaos, and his elaborate plans threaten to destroy the city and completely demoralize its denizens.

More so than in "Batman Begins," the Gotham City of "The Dark Knight" functions as a character all its own. The dark alleys and empty buildings are eerie and darkly beautiful thanks to the efforts of cinematographer Wally Pfister, but the lion's share of credit must be given to director Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Insomnia"), whose overall vision has made this series a prime example of contemporary film noir.

The action is top-notch as well. Nolan wisely chose to utilize actual vehicles and stuntmen instead of relying primarily on computer effects, and when you see the truck chase that takes place mid-way through the film, you'll see why it's such an important distinction. Blue-screen effects can go a long way, but when it comes down to it, there are few things more thrilling than watching a great, old-school car chase boasting some truly amazing, real-life stunts to go along with the CGI.

Yet as pulse-pounding as the action scenes are, none of them would have amounted to much without a capable cast to carry the rest of the film. Obviously, Ledger is the movie's greatest asset, and he monopolizes the viewer's attention whenever he is on screen. But amid all the praise for his amazing acting, I think some people are neglecting some other great performances, especially Eckhart's turn as Gotham City's "knight in shining armor."

The movie actually relies more heavily on Dent's story arc than it does on the Joker's shenanigans, and Eckhart creates a character who is always engaging and sympathetic in even the most difficult circumstances. Ledger may have given the better performance, but Eckhart serves as the film's dark, tormented heart and soul.

"The Dark Knight" is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity and general nastiness.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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