How It Rates: ****
Starring: Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Red Flags: Fisticuffs and Copious Explosions -- too disturbing for young children
I'm not sure people would be talking about giving Heath Ledger an Oscar if he were still alive -- it seems people want to recognize his entire body of work and they don't have any other option that's good enough -- but he is frightfully, psychotically compelling as The Joker in what people will consider his official last picture, any salvageable work for Terry Gilliam nonwithstanding.
The Dark Knight veers the new Batman saga into heavy and heady territory, turning the comic-book movie into film noir. It requires your absolute attention to digest all its nuances and social commentary, and no doubt people will see it over and over again just to make sure they get it. It clouds the definitions of heroes and villains. Victory against crime comes with a huge penalty, and even the best, most well-equipped super-crimefighters are powerless to stop the unpredictable chaos of a madman.
Enter the Joker. Save for a few gutwrenching speeches, we don't know what turned him into a clown-faced terrorist. But we do learn that he derives his control from the uncontrollable, a fierce hatred for any semblance of rationality or code of conduct. You don't play chess with a guy who sweeps the pieces off the board. Yet the Caped Crusader (Bale), tries his best, aided as always by the insightful Alfred (Caine) and R&D whiz Lucius Fox (Freeman). Love interest Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal, replacing the Scientology-zonked Katie Holmes) is back as well, only she has a new flame -- charismatic D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who's trying to shut down Gotham's criminal underworld. It's laundering money through Gotham banks, one of which is hit by the Joker and several clown thugs in the opening scenes.
The mob soon finds out police are on to their operation after irradiated bills are found in the bank vault. The Joker appears and offers a solution to their problems: "Kill the Batman," for half of the mob's money, of course, which happens to be controlled by an Asian businessman trying to do a deal with Wayne's company. This touches off a series of unforeseeable, twisted crimes with Batman, Lt. Gordon (Oldman) and Dent in a precarious alliance plagued by uncertainty and distrust as they try to stop the Joker's plan to kill Gotham's citizens if Batman doesn't reveal his true identity. But the Joker's crime spree keeps growing, getting bigger and crazier and forcing the good guys to think outside of their ethical guides. The picture runs at a breathless pace, leaving you little time to muse upon its disturbing truths.
Ledger's Joker makes Jack Nicholson's 1989 version look, well, clownish. And this sequel makes the entire first Batman movie series look like Shazam. It doesn't care about catering to a kid-friendly audience, or even the comic-book geek. Director Christopher Nolan clearly made the movie he wanted to make, venturing into art-film territory. However, art films don't do $150 million plus at the box office on opening weekend. Nolan may very well have created the perfect blockbuster, combining just enough action, chills, and insight to pull in people who don't see popcorn movies.
An Oscar nomination for Ledger is a given. Perhaps one for screenplay and Nolan's direction are in the bag, too. Another given: we will see a third Batman picture, and as some on the Internet have said, please, please, keep Robin out of it.