Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reviews: Batman: The Dark Knight

Went to watch "The Dark Knight" today at Forest Hill. As one might imagine, there is more than a healthy interest in this movie here in Australia as it was Heath Ledger's final movie before he died. And at least a third of the audience (maybe two fifths) who were watching the same session of "The Dark Knight" as me were people who I think normally wouldn't go to watch a movie like that. There were old aunties watching the movie, for crying out loud. Old aunties! And there was even this older gentleman, who's dressing (he wore a beret that he kept on the entire movie!) screamed out: "I'm a sophisticated gentleman, so who knows what the hell I'm actually doing in this grungy cinema watching this!"

But anyway, yes, there were quite a number of people watching The Dark Knight. But was it any good?

Before you read on, here's the obligatory spoiler warning.

If you don't want to find out what happened in the movie, stop reading HERE as there may be some plot points revealed!

I suppose in order to put this movie in context, one would undoubtedly have to compare it to a few of the Batman movies before this: the successful reboot of the Batman franchise in the 2005 "Batman Begins" movie, as well as the original "Batman" movie which featured Jack Nicholson's classic take on the Joker. I was tempted to compare it to "Batman Forever" which has the first appearance of Two Face on the big screen, but that would be pointless...comparing a movie to a bad movie doesn't make much sense, unless one was trying to decide which movie was crappier.

I preferred "Batman Begins" to "The Dark Knight". I suppose I've always been a fan of the Batman: Year One era when Frank Miller showed, for the very first time, that Batman was human and he always wasn't this all-menacing, no-mistakes vigilante that we all know he is. "Batman Begins" didn't just humanise Batman, it also showed us the flip side of his persona, how he actually managed to work Bruce Wayne nicely as his alter ego. "Batman Begins" was really about Batman and Bruce Wayne.

"The Dark Knight", however, is a tale of Heath Ledger's Joker and Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent. While Batman is still the title character of the movie, he takes a backseat to Joker and Harvey Dent in the movie. Heck, if it wasn't for Heath Ledger's chilling portrayal of Joker, I'd argue that the movie should be titled: Harvey Dent: The Golden Years since Harvey seems to be the shining light of the movie and the focus seems to be always on him as the hero!

The opening scene of a bank robbery sets the tone of the movie, telling audiences that this is going to be a much darker movie than the previous one (which was pretty dark in itself at times). There's a nice "cameo" of William Fichtner ("The Longest Yard", "Black Hawk Down") as the bank manager of the bank that holds money for Gotham's mobs, grabbing out of a shotgun and taking no crap from the bank robbers, who don clown masks to hide their identity.

He shoots two of the bank robbers and tries shooting another one only to find out that he's run out of shells. That bank robber than gets up and unloads with a submachine gun into Fichtner's body. We then see that the hired goons robbing the bank all start shooting each other on the back, thanks to Joker's instructions to shoot the other guy after he's done his part to assist with the bank heist. With one clown remaining, he pulls off his mask to reveal an extremely creepy version of the Joker.

This Joker is nowhere close to the one Jack Nicholson portrays in "Batman". While Nicholson's Joker is cunning and ruthless, he's also actually bwa-ha-ha laugh-out-loud funny. Everything is a joke to him and he trades humourous quips with not just Batman, but with his perceived audience. Ledger's Joker, while also seeing everything as a joke, is much darker and is, for the lack of a better description, an agent of chaos. He sees the funny side of things in a twisted way, acting on his violent impulses and having no qualms or hesitations about killing anyone. Ledger's Joker is a master strategist, as we find out as the movie plods on.

Ledger is brilliant as Joker and quite a number of the Hollywood heavyweights have called for him to be awarded a post-humours Oscar for his role. That might just happen this year! His body language and mannerisms are brilliant, one minute portraying the Joker as this scrawny fiend who is not a physical match for Batman, and the next as a cool and calculated tactical genius who can match Batman in the brains department.

The one thing that I thought was really great about this movie was the fact that they didn't reveal Joker's origins. Who really needs to know why he has the insane mind that he is anyway? It would have added a bit to the plot, but it certainly wasn't necessary. It seemed that they DID reveal Joker's origin during the movie, when Joker tells a mob boss that his father used a knife to cut the grin-scars on his face. But that was a lie as revealed later on when he tells Rachel Dawes (played by Maggie Gyllenhal, who looks very much like Katie Holmes) that he inflicted those wounds on himself.

Ledger's Joker is very simplistic in the sense that he's not motivated by money or revenge or anything like that. He's motivated by anarchy, by spreading chaos to the world around him. He's just insane and he likes the simplistic notion of just blowing things up. And although Joker explains during the movie that he likes the "cheap" stuff like gunpowder, oil and plastic explosives, he also prefers using knives to gut a victim because he can see their emotions close up, slowly. What a loon!

Harvey Dent is the other major part of the movie. The entire movie keeps comparing Batman to Harvey: one's an illegal vigilante who takes down thugs the hard way while the other is a white knight who takes down criminals legally using the justice system. Batman sees Harvey as the hero Gotham City needs as he takes no bull but at the same time, gets results by removing the criminal element off the streets without having to resort to violence or the nifty technology that Batman possesses.

Dent is also dating Rachel, and there's a love triangle that is briefly explored but doesn't deter from the main plot of the movie. If anything, it explains Harvey's quick turn to Two Face later in the movie when he loses Rachel and finds out that, while Joker is ultimately responsible for organising the kill, it was crooked cops that was part of Detective Jim Gordon's (played by Gary Oldman) task force that took her away to a location where she died when a bomb went off. Dent loses everything, including, it seems, his mind.

When the Two Face character first appears on screen, it's like seeing the Two Face character from "Batman: The Animated Series" or from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: The Long Halloween series...very similar and a hell of a lot better looking than the Two Face from "Batman Forever". Dent is a broken man and when approached by Joker, he actually buys into Joker's hoopla and actually goes after his former friends, Jim Gordon and Batman, instead of killing the man who was responsible for killing Rachel!

As I said, Batman seems relegated to be the supporting character in this movie. Bruce Wayne seems to have more presence than the caped crusader himself! The one thing that I absolutely hated was Batman's snarl. I know he has to disguise his voice so that people can't tell the difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman, but really was that, a snarl. I'm not sure whether it was Christian Bale's fault or not, but everytime Batman talked, he sounded as if he needed a box of lozenges for that really sore throat that he had! It's great for scaring off crooks and criminals, but when he's talking to Gordon and Dent, it's a bit hard understanding what the hell he's saying.

The movie goes on for 2 hours and 25 minutes (not including the credits), which felt like it was 25 minutes a bit too long. There were some scenes which really could have been cut as they didn't move the movie forward at all. That's my take on it anyway.

Nice to see some other "cameos" from the world of Batman actually making it into the movie. We see Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow again early in the movie when he gets caught by Batman during a drug deal gone wrong. Then there's Salvatore Maroni (played by Eric Roberts) from the Batman: Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween series who's appearance in the movie really gives it some continuity, since he's the "replacement" mob boss after Carmine "The Roman" Falcone (played by Tom Wilkinson) went loony in "Batman Begins".

We even get to see the appearance of Tony "Tiny" Lister (the president from "The Fifth Element" and Zeus from the WWF in the late 80s) as a con in the latter part of the movie! Even a Singaporean actor, Ng Chan Han, was in "The Dark Knight" as Lau, the Hong Kong businessman who "steals" the Gotham City mobs' pooled money!

Best line of the movie:

"This city needs a better class of criminal."

All in all, I think while "The Dark Knight" is a good movie, it's not as good as the previous one. Ledger and Eckhart are standouts in this movie. Alfred (played by Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman) get to develop their characters further and you emphatise with them. Batman, though being the title character of the movie, takes a HUGE back seat and in some of the scenes he's in, I personally thought to myself: "Ok, I'm sick of seeing him. Bring back Joker and Harvey Dent already." And Rachel Dawes brought nothing to the movie except for the plot point of getting killed and "turning" Dent into Two Face.

An Oscar for Heath Ledger? Guess we'll find out in about nine months' time!

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