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The Dark Knight

July 25, 2008

Michael Caine said that The Dark Knight is the biggest movie of all time, and with the returns it’s getting, making back half its estimated $150million budget within the first week, it looks like he may have a point. It’s unavoidable, of course, a great shuddering behemoth of a thing, invading all available media, temporarily replacing the backgrounds to cinema chain websites, burrowing its way into toyshops and supermarkets, and generating such a wave of interest and semi-arm-bending-obligation that even the normally unaffected by such things will consider a trip to the flicks.

Only to bump up against the School’s Out posse flooding there en masse.

It’s a Summer Blockbuster. And the world and his 9 year old son will be heading to see it.

There’s no real need to see Christopher Nolan’s entertaining but flawed first Batman movie, although the observant, had they not, would wonder I’m sure, why Cillian Murphy pops up in the second scene to speak one line of dialogue in reprising his Scarecrow role. But then, this is a kitchen sink kinda movie; everything is going to be chucked at you.

To step back a sec, we start during a brilliantly staged heist scene, where a gang of ruthless criminals, all sporting miserable clown masks raid a bank and then gradually screw one another over until there’s just one villain left. When he rips his mask off he has another underneath. It’s a great entrance for The Joker (Heath Ledger, as if I need to tell you, see para 1) and implants him firmly in your mind. Good thing, for he vanished for a while after this, and we then move to The Batman (Christian Bale) and the new DA of Gotham, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). And therein lies a small problem, that just started to get bigger and bigger for me. I’m no comic book or superhero aficionado, but I know Dent’s destiny, and although I won’t spoil it here, one brief visit to the movie’s cast list on IMDb will more than merely indicate what a huge stir to the plot pot is coming up.

Bruce Wayne has moved his base (Wayne Mansion was destroyed at the end of Batman Begins, you may recall) to a secret underground lab within the city, where butler Alfred (Caine) and super scientist Lucius (Morgan Freeman) help him develop his gear and clobber and gadgets and gizmos. This move against the bad guys has become a focussed attack on organised crime, which Dent – from an official angle – is also having a great deal of success with. The battle lines are drawn, then, and with a coming-together of the disparate crime gangs, trying to resolve the issue of the clampdown on their activities, it is the appearance of The Joker that galvanises them into action. His second scene, at a villains’ get-together, is one of the film’s high points, and includes a conjuring trick with a pencil that will just blow you away.

Ledger, here, is truly magnetic, a man filled to bursting with a black soul and ghoulish glee. His scenes, in fact, are all mercifully short, because it’s like feeding on too many chocolates, you just can’t help yourself, and Nolan rations his moments out throughout the film, until a splurge at the end. Although he echoes Nicholson’s performance from Tim Burton’s film – the laugh is kind of the same and there’s that croaky Jack catch in the voice – Ledger’s is a much more frightening version, because he really does lack any humanity. Nicholson started off as Jack Napier, Ledger is The Joker from the start, and you fear, he’s always been like this. My favourite image here is his puppet-y walk out of a hospital, quite quite non-human, smiling to himself as carnage roars around. Despite playing out in bright sunshine it’s the darkest moment in the entire thing, and worth the price of admission alone. I’m not sure, though, that here isn’t a danger at playing it pitch-black so consistently, with only a lop-sided smile and razor sharp black wit to add texture.

Bale’s creation is lesser simply because he hasn’t moved on since the first film in any way. He still looks extraordinarily menacing in his mask, he still emits that fearsome growl when he speaks, and he still has to kill himself to appear the arrogant rich bastard he despises. Only at the very end is there even a hint that another level exists, but essentially it’s very much the same performance as before.

The other main character, Dent, comprises Eckhart trying to tone down the shit-eating grin (and not doing too badly) and giving it his best to act outside of the Jon Bon Jovi Keep The Faith haircut every young District Attorney will apparently be sporting this year.

But beyond these three main players, there is not only a huge cast to keep happy, but a complex follow-the-money plot and a twisting Darker Than Thou game of cat and mouse set up between the main protagonists to keep the audience guessing to the end. And this is the issue really, and it’s the same issue I had with Batman Begins, in a way, that Nolan wants it all. He wants everything thrown into the mix, and with the focus shifting all over the place (including one extended and fairly unnecessary trip to Hong Kong) there is, almost from the off, an ever-worrying nagging feeling that something important may have been squeezed out and left to blow away in all the kerfuffle of action and atmos. There is, definitely, a feeling of dislocation and unconnectability, which was just my issue with a yet another Nolan/Bale/Caine piece, 2006’s The Prestige. That earlier film encapsulates the problem best, I think, in that I was consistently uneasy, and not in a good way, that simply wasn’t able to feel at home with anyone long enough to care. It’s a beautiful movie, filled with spectacle, a great fat marquee of a movie, all gloss and scope and magnitude, but there were a couple of tent pegs missing, distractedly allowing the thing to flap and flutter, and take your eye away from the action. It was a film all about plot, which asked you to be bothered about the characters, but didn’t put the work in to make that possible. In The Dark Knight, Nolan builds a huge three-ring circus with dancing elephants and juggling clowns, and the same problems, unfortunately. Your head’s elsewhere, you’re forever wishing you could be back in the scene just gone, just for a little longer. You can be bashed over the head with stupendous imagery – and there’s plenty of that here – but for 152 minutes without actually sitting down with these people to find out who they are?

There are some brilliant sequences in The Dark Knight, there is a terrific forty minutes or so in middle of the film where it really takes hold and delivers. Check the interrogation scene, where two men in masks try and discover who the other one really is. At this point, I really wanted it to take off by extending this, following it, seeing it develop, a bit more wordplay, a stab at development, the risk of taking a wordy route to discovery and potentially unveiling weaknesses. But, alas, it soon devolves to more threat and violence. Not that this isn’t well done, of course.

Ultimately, everyone, not just the characters, but everyone, Nolan included, even the film itself, wears a mask of sorts. You would have hoped, given the runtime, that we might have been allowed a peep behind the facade, and seen a few of these people for what they really are, and allowed a bit of a sit down and extended chat with people so that you might care when one or two of them are blown to smithereens.

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