Thursday, 23 May 2024

Complex, dazzling 'Dark Knight' tops all action films

THE DARK KNIGHT (Rated PG-13)


Remember how the “Batman” franchise was revitalized only three years ago with the powerful, memorable and brilliant “Batman Begins,” taking the comic book series in a direction that was anything but jokey?


Well, brace yourself for something even better, which is exceedingly rare for a sequel. Hyperbole should be resisted at all cost, but the newest adventure of Batman in “The Dark Knight” is arguably the best film of the year, possibly holding that acclaim long enough until the Academy starts announcing candidates for Oscar awards.


Reuniting writer-director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale in the titular role, “The Dark Knight” is an artful balancing act of a supreme popcorn movie and serious artistic endeavor. The camp of Adam West as TV’s Batman and even of the earlier film versions has receded graciously into oblivion, replaced with a sober purpose.


The result is not as somber and grim as to press all fun out of a superhero creation. It’s simply that no one needs to yell “Holy Batcave” or something equally elementary. Silly dialogue is plainly missing, albeit some sly humor creeps in when necessary.


What is really of consequence in “The Dark Knight” is not just full-throttle action, but a sense of Shakespearean tragedy. To explain this concept more fully would require divulging some serious plot twists, and to do so would be a grave disservice.


As wealthy industrialist and playboy Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman, Christian Bale has so completely captured the enigmatic qualities of the Caped Crusader that it’s easy to forget the likes of Michael Keaton, George Clooney and Val Kilmer.


Christopher Nolan has turned the corner on his characterization of Batman, and there’s no going back to the old days. Bale’s Batman is a brooding superhero, reserved and taciturn when engaged in his serious crime-fighting mode. Believably strong, he fills the Bat costume with the forceful determination that no other actor has been able to accomplish.


Gotham City (looking very much like Chicago) remains a place of menace and foreboding, despite the presence of Batman. Crime cartels are on the rise, allowing Eric Roberts to play a sleazy mob boss. With the help of police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman sets out to wipe out organized crime.


The triumvirate’s initial success is soon blunted by the sudden arrival on the scene of criminal mastermind The Joker (the late Heath Ledger).


Ruthlessly seeking to climb to the top of Gotham City’s criminal food chain, The Joker is probably the most clever, diabolical and psychopathic criminal to ever emerge. He represents pure, unadulterated evil, in the sense that he has no logical motivation for his actions.


However, The Joker, his face smeared in a distorted clown makeup, is clearly motivated to wreak chaos on Gotham City, if only because his ultimate goal is to destroy Batman.


Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne views his Batman role as a short-term crusade, which explains his hope that the crusading Harvey Dent can become Gotham’s hero. Sadly, Bruce Wayne has found that the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over for Katie Holmes), is now romantically drawn to Dent. Notwithstanding hurt feelings, Bruce puts a lot of energy into supporting the ambitious district attorney, with interesting consequences emerging later on.


To be sure, “The Dark Knight” delivers the goods with plenty of intense, heavy action, from the opening bank heist to recurring instances of mayhem on the streets of Gotham. The Joker pedals his diabolical plans with chaotic precision, setting traps all over town in his cat-and-mouse game with the Caped Crusader.


Contemptuous of minor thugs and crime bosses, The Joker relishes the mental challenge of a death match with Batman. But there are plenty of explosions and daring high-speed chases that are very much a part of the existential duel between two opposite forces.


“The Dark Knight” can be enjoyed tremendously on several levels. First and foremost, it’s a great action picture, with all the bells and whistles. On the other hand, it’s a complex, adult story that belies any comic book roots. The characters are engaging and serious, with Heath Ledger giving the performance of his all-too-brief life. The Joker is a chilling, menacing character, so completely twisted and psychotic that his every move merits close attention.


The entire cast of “The Dark Knight” is spectacular, with Ledger, Bale, Oldman and Eckhart most deserving of praise. If the opportunity is available, be sure to see “The Dark Knight” at an IMAX theater.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


The infamous and unsolved crimes of the Boston Strangler remain mystifying more than 40 years after the killing spree targeted nearly a dozen single women.


“The Boston Strangler,” being released on DVD, stars David Faustino (at one time Al Bundy’s son on “Married With Children”) as Albert De Salvo, an imprisoned small-time crook who devises a plan with his manipulative cell mate to confess to being the strangler in an attempt to gain notoriety from the killings and reap the reward money. Meanwhile, Detective John Marsden (Andrew Divoff) is certain one person alone could not have committed the crimes.


Going in a complete different direction, the DVD release of “Spaced: The Complete Series” is something I am anxious to discover, if only because it’s a cult British sitcom.


What’s of interest is that it stars Simon Pegg as an aimless London resident barely able to hold a job. If “Spaced” is anything like Pegg’s work in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” this British takeoff on “Friends” has to be worth a look.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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