July 17, 2008

Dark Masterpiece

By Phil Villarreal, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Jul. 17--I'll do my best in the next 650 words to avoid falling into slack-jawed, worshipful hyperbole over the wonders of "The Dark Knight."

But analyzing the successes of such a blistering, genre-defining masterwork (I'm already slipping) is tantamount to judging the contours of Michelangelo's David or evaluating the shading and form of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

You don't watch "The Dark Knight" so much as you sit back and slide into its world. The 2 1/2-hour movie passes in an instant, while the themes and revelations could stay with you for years.

You're there, in the grimy, despair-ridden streets of Gotham City, cowering in fear of the faceless thugs on the corners and the stinging alarm of stray bullets in the distance. You turn meekly to the overcast sky, longing for a glimpse of the bat signal, the collective security blanket that sends a pang of fear into the hearts of evildoers.

You blink and open your eyes to a trickle of anarchic criminal glee, tagging along with thieves in clown masks on a pulse-pounding bank robbery. The nastiest of them all is the greasy-haired, lipstick-smeared Joker (Heath Ledger). He compulsively licks his lips as if he's anticipating the fruits of his homicidal impulses and intersperses his trembling speech with out-of-place pauses and repetitions. The fear isn't that the Joker is crazy, but that he's all too cohesive and exacting in his devilish pursuits.

Then we slip under the hood and cape of Batman (Christian Bale), a tortured hero as ruthlessly bent on maintaining some sense of order amid overpowering chaos as the Joker is at disrupting the status quo.

And so begins a battle that's as old as time but folded effortlessly into hot-button themes such as the threat of terror and the foibles of the modern criminal justice system. The timeless "Dark Knight" power-surges the underdeveloped promise of the comic-book adaptation into bold, mature new territory.

Devoid of grandstanding and head-shaking plot turns, the movie takes crime every bit as seriously as a Scorsese film.

Somehow topping his seminal "Batman Begins" (2005), director Christopher Nolan's epic is a Mobius strip of situational morality and conflicts of values and convenience, love and fear. The Joker's idea of humor is setting up grand conspiracies that force people into confronting their darker natures. The Joker and Batman, equals in prudence and connivery, engage in a chess game in which one plays by the rules while the other flips the board over at every opportunity.

Patrolling the sidelines of the battle royale is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the virtuous and daring district attorney who risks his very public neck to put away mobsters. In many ways he's more brave than Batman, who hides in the shadows. Batman's old flame, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), has clearly made her choice, having taken up with Harvey.

The film belongs, however, to Ledger, whose life was cut short at age 28 after an accidental drug overdose in January. His twitchy, internally terrorized Joker is his finest performance.

Jack Nicholson's witticism-spewing Joker in the 1989 "Batman," would have been a fascinating dinner guest, but Ledger's take on the character is a tortured beast you wouldn't be able to look in the face.

It was a masterstroke by Nolan not to tell the Joker's back story, leaving the audience to sift through a number of conflicting explanations he reels off in the moments before he slashes victims with "smile" scars that match his own.

As the Joker's stinging laughter echoes into the dreary yet enrapturing Gotham night, the comic-book film has come of age.


The Dark Knight


--Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.

--Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart.

--Director: Christopher Nolan.

--Family call: Not for young kids.

--Running time: 152 minutes.


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