With the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent, Batman sets out to dismantle the remaining criminal organizations that plague the city streets. The partnership proves to be effective, but they soon find themselves prey to a reign of chaos unleashed by a rising criminal mastermind known to the terrified citizens of Gotham as The Joker.
In 2005, indie director Christopher Nolan - known best for making the cult backwards thriller Memento - brought a reimagining of the Batman franchise back to the big screen after an eight year hiatus. Batman Begins was a much more serious, grittier Batman film, grounding it in a new reality that was a lot less "Burton-esque" and thankfully neon-free. Nolan had raised the bar for superhero / comic book films and Batman Begins was arguably one of the best ones to date. Now three years later with all kinds of hype and excitement behind it, The Dark Knight is a continuation of Nolan's Batman world, albeit somewhat taking the reimagination a bit further.
The buzz about The Dark Knight being a considerably more serious and violent installment are entirely true. The Dark Knight is even further from a family friendly environment than Tim Burton's first outing in 1989 (simply titled Batman) or Nolan's first installment, Batman Begins. In this film, which runs an impressive two and a half hours, the only things that distinguish Gotham City from any other city in the U.S. are its name, its winged protector, and its demented villains. The late Heath Ledger steps in as The Joker this time around, a casting choice that was seemingly a rather odd one at first, but ultimately a brilliant one in the end. Ledger is a fantastic actor who, in The Dark Knight, is able to completely create a new spin on the villain - one that is altogether creepy, disturbing, and even scary. Jack Nicholson was an intense but over-the-top if not slightly cartoony rendition, while Ledger feels entirely believable, existing in a world that no longer feels like an alternate comic book universe from our own -- this Gotham City is real and tangible... and so are its villains.
The opening of The Dark Knight simultaneously wraps up any potential loose ends from the previous film while nicely introducing our new villain and the kind of unpredictable villainy he's capable of. Batman Begins was a frequently sweeping action/adventure film with a superhero stamp on it, but The Dark Knight feels considerably more grounded. With our central characters already having been established in Begins, Nolan is able to get right into further developing these characters while at the same time introducing new ones and building those up as well. In some ways, having more characters to build up does take away screen time and development from our titular character - and those close to him - but The Dark Knight is easily just as much about Harvey Dent, The Joker, Lt. Gordon, and Rachel Dawes as it is about Bruce Wayne and Batman. And because Nolan chooses to give plenty of thrills and action as well as story and character development, The Dark Knight is able to succeed in more areas than just action or thrills -- The Dark Knight oozes emotion as well.
But part of the intensity of The Dark Knight is the violence and the loose-cannon capabilities of the film's central villains The Joker and the inevitable transformation of Dent into Two Face, the latter of which is a much more visually horrifying monster that dangerously pushes this film's rating of PG-13 into "probably-could-have-been-R" type territory. When we first see The Joker outside of robbing a bank, he kills a mobster by ramming a pencil through his head (not shown graphically, but it's enough to get the point... no pun intended). In fact, it's this kind of unpredictability of The Joker's quirky creepiness that makes his antics somewhat humorous - if not just because we the audience just don't know what to make of him or what he might do next. He really could kill at any moment, and it could be something truly brutal or vicious. Not to delve into further spoiling information, but many moments where a character is threatened at gun or knife point are either not shown on screen or handled immediately off-camera. One instance involves The Joker telling a story of how he got his scars while holding a knife to the mouth of a mob boss - before apparently either shoving the knife into his mouth or cutting his face to kill him. While we don't see exactly what he does (we see from behind the man as he dies, not what happens to him), it's the music and the drama of the moment that makes the scene all the more horrifying. In another instance, we briefly see Bruce stitching up a wound on his arm, and another gruesome scene shows the stitching/scarring on a criminal's belly after The Joker has apparently surgically implanted a bomb into the man's stomach. Finally, the look of Two Face is a brutal, gruesome sight. It's a sight that is horrifying and disturbing to say the least. If you don't want to know, stop reading this paragraph here, but it's important to warn those thinking a Batman film should be fun for the whole family that Nolan's take on Two Face is far, far, far from the wild-haired, purple-scarred Tommy Lee Jones rendition. After Eckart's face catches on fire and we later see his face after the bandages have been pulled off, we see that his skin is charred and pieces of his flesh are completely missing. We can see the bone of his chin and part of his jaw through open pieces of his skin, as well as the muscles of his face, his entire left eye and even some of the teeth through the side of his face. And after he's revealed, there are very few times when we see Dent that we don't see both sides of his face and it's a difficult, disturbing image to look at because it's executed so realistically and convincingly.
Aside from some graphic violence, there are many tense moments or tense, emotional scenes where life is threatened and the viewer is put through an emotional ringer. It's to the point where I felt completely drained after the film because so many moments teetered on the edge and you never knew which way the film would go. The action scenes are wonderfully handled, with not too much having been lost in the many trailers and commercials that were shown for months. Aside from violence, there is some language, including a couple uses of "J-sus" and 1 "g*dd*mn." While it overall could have been worse, given the nature of the film, it was unnecessary to even include that. Finally, there's one brief suggestive sexual scene where Bruce runs through a room in an office building past a couple who were apparently fooling around. Nothing is seen apart from them adjusting their clothes, but it did feel random and entirely out of place (despite clearly played for laughs).
Aside from Ledger and the film's heavy content, Aaron Eckhart turns in a strong performance as Gotham's District Attorney Harvey Dent, making a wonderful addition to the cast. Christian Bale is as wonderful as ever as Batman and Bruce Wayne as he channels the struggles of such a role as the masked hero and the responsibilities that come with it. Although I was greatly concerned going into the film, Maggie Gyllenhaal actually plays the part of Rachel Dawes much like her predecessor Katie Holmes did, making it very easy to accept Holmes' absence this time around. Many times, I felt like Gyllenhaal was imitating Holmes' take on Dawes and it worked in favor of the actress switch. To round out the cast, Gary Oldman is even better this time around as Gordon - thankfully getting much more screen time, Michael Caine is still the best Alfred one could pick, and Morgan Freeman is always a joy to see on screen. With Nolan's direction and a script he wrote with his brother, The Dark Knight adds up to a comic book adaptation like none that's hit the screen to date. Despite some brutal content, The Dark Knight is a triumph in story telling and acting. It's just a shame Nolan couldn't have found a better way to execute some of it to make it a bit less intense or disturbing.
The Dark Knight deserves some stern warnings - even for viewers above the age of the young ones I usually intend the warning for. It's an intense, dramatic thriller that isn't for the faint of heart and certainly not for everyone. The Dark Knight is a heavy, vicious film that is much more violent than its predecessor, Batman Begins, and even darker. Thematically, the film does weigh heavily on the struggles against evil and making sacrifices in standing up for what is right. The story sort of plays out like a Greek tragedy or even a parable on different roads that can be taken in response to tragedies and trials in our lives. And lastly, who knows if all The Dark Knight's praise and accolades will get it much Oscar attention, but one thing can be said about the much talked about performance by Heath Ledger - gone or not, he deserves an Academy Award for his performance here. He electrifies the screen as The Joker, and it's sad to think he's since passed on. With that said, The Dark Knight is truly a Batman story unlike anything seen before, and it will be difficult to top should a third film be made. If you have any questions or comments about the film before you see it (if you decide to), feel free to contact me.- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 7/17/08)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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