*Spoilers Ahead*
OK, let's push aside the huge box office, the relentless hype, the recent arrest of Christian Bale and, with deepest respect, the death of Heath Ledger...just for a minute or two. Because they aren't that relevant. Sure they add a mystique and a glamour to the film but what you're really interested in is whether it's actually any good or not. I've respected director Christopher Nolan for some time, ever since the wonderfully clever Memento and the dour thriller Insomnia. I liked Batman Begins simply because it tore down the embarrassments that were Batman Forever and Batman And Robin and positioned the Bruce Wayne/Batman dualism within the framework of the here and now. Gotham was recognisably Chicago and not the teased and hyper-realised Gothic trappings of even the Tim Burton films.

...takes Batman/Bruce Wayne from a charismatic crime buster to, at the conclusion, a more shadowy, morally off centre character, almost the villain that the Joker attempts to fashion him into.
The faux psychology in both Burton films was flung aside and a proper attempt was realistically pushed to the fore in Batman Begins and is here the singular dynamic that drives The Dark Knight. Granted it gets a little overheated in some sections of the film, with the twin knights metaphors for Wayne and Dent and the stress on the acceptable face of vigilantism, the warped sociopathy of the Joker often screechingly overwrought like someone running their nails down a blackboard every half an hour just to remind us what it sounds like again. But at least Nolan is attempting to make two dimensional symbols properly three dimension characters. It works to a degree in asking the right questions about the moral code of vigilantes and what it would take for them to break that code and takes Batman/Bruce Wayne from a charismatic crime buster to, at the conclusion, a more shadowy, morally off centre character, almost the villain that the Joker attempts to fashion him into. The catalyst for this is of course the aforementioned Joker, a force of such animal chaos that it takes the entire two and a half hours of the film to finally subdue him and not before dragging Gotham's other "white" knight, district attorney Harvey Dent, into hell with him. The wavering needles of the moral compass between Joker, Batman, Dent and the corrupt police force and criminal fraternity essentially fulfills the film's central prophecy of "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain."

The film begins with a wonderfully choreographed bank heist, very reminiscent of Michael Mann's Heat, and if you're watching it in IMAX the visuals of robbers sliding across buildings is enough to induce vertigo. Even here, it's Ledger's physicality in the role of The Joker that immediately alerts you to his presence even though you haven't seen his face. This is one action set piece amongst many that keep propelling the film forward. From the fight with the multiple Batman impersonators, complete with a cameo from Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow, to the outrageous abduction of Chinese mobster accountant Lau by hoisting him out of his office via a low flying aircraft, Nolan finds ever more energetic ways of pushing the action along.

As this frenetic action escalates with each set piece, the Joker's creative double crossing and killing sprees tear apart the moral fabric at the centre of the plot. Dent announces he's Batman to draw the Joker out and ultimately pays the price for his chivalry with the death of Rachel Dawes, the love interest that Wayne and Dent tussle over throughout. Dent, hideously scarred, is driven to madness by her death and in a disturbingly hilarious sequence the Joker, dressed as a nurse, tips him over the edge into a spree of wiping out the corrupt cops and mobsters, Commissioner Gordon and Batman. Whether the sub-plot of Dent's downfall actually works is moot here. It's certainly tragic and sympathetically played by Aaron Eckhart but it could be seen as a case of too much ground for the film to cover. Over ambition is perhaps one of the criticisms you could level at it and that certainly affects the length of the film and Nolan's attempt to fill every available minute open to him.

The pursuit of the Joker, whilst he's trying to capture Dent, is full on with Batman totalling the Batmobile but able to continue the chase on the Batcycle, ingeniously tripping an articulated lorry over with some neat lassoing. The stunts are incredible and for the most part filmed and edited brilliantly. It does tend to fall apart in the last half hour where the Joker places explosives on two ferries—one carrying convicts, the other a random assortment of people—telling the passengers on each that the only way to save themselves is to trigger the explosives on the other ferry; otherwise, at midnight he will destroy them both remotely. Whilst this is happening Batman uses a form of mass sonar gizmo to locate the Joker and the resulting action, complete with SWAT teams and hostages is very confusing as Nolan edits and shoots this very close to the bone and his attempt to use visual abstracts rather than tightly choreographed shots here leads to an incoherence in the film when it needs crystal clarity.

Ledger is a force of nature in the film, totally immersed in the part and betraying Jack Nicholson's pantomime for what it was in the original Batman film.
But these are minor niggles. Ledger is a force of nature in the film, totally immersed in the part and betraying Jack Nicholson's pantomime for what it was in the original Batman film. He's raw, elemental, brutal, sadistic and totally charismatic and personifies the dark, chaotic void at the very centre of Batman himself. Bale is suave and sophisticated as uber-capitalist Wayne and whilst physically brilliant as Batman, I do wish he'd drop the rasping voice he puts on. he sounds in dire need of a Strepsil. But he's convincing where he needs to be, particularly when he choses to take the blame for Dent's misdemeanours and assume the mantle of the hunted one in a crusade that seemingly has no real end. Eckhart has a robust, square jawed Robert Redford quality that's perfect for the whiter than white Dent and Gary Oldman quietly puts in a rather splendid performance as the world weary, but thoroughly honourable, Gordon. I wasn't totally convinced by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel and felt she was the most under developed of all the characters which is a shame as her fate is a major twist in the plot. But she didn't make me really care enough about Rachel's relationship with Dent and Wayne and I found that problematic.

It's beautifully shot by Wally Pfister and the swirling, circling aerial shots of Chicago and Hong Kong and the explosive action sequences look incredible in the IMAX format. The score, which taunts, teases and gnaws away at you in its twitching, stabbing strings, cold electronics and brass fanfares, is constantly underscoring the film and whilst it doesn't produce a memorable theme Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newton Howard concoct a feverish atmosphere to match the back-flipping plot. Nolan's direction is rock solid save for those odd sequences where he confuses the audience with his editorial choices and he gets the most out of the Chicago locations, the actors and the stunts and visual effects.

Immensely satisfying on many levels, and not without its flaws it has to be said, this is probably one of the best comic-book adaptations for the screen since Richard Donner's Superman and enthusiastically grabs hold of the mythology to renew it, make it relevant and specific for this our own age of uncertainty and moral chaos.

THE DARK KNIGHT (Cert 12A. Released July 24th 2008. Directed by Christopher Nolan)

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