Thursday, July 17, 2008
There was a time when people thought it was crazy to try and have someone else take on the role of the Joker because no one could possibly fill Jack Nicholson's shoes. But after you see “The Dark Knight” (opening July 18 throughout San Diego and in IMAX at Edwards Mira Mesa Cinemas), you won't be able to think of anyone else besides Heath Ledger. Now Nicholson’s Joker looks like a naughty clown while Ledger’s Joker is downright nasty and disturbed (yet still oddly likable). Ledger's manically endearing performance as the unhinged psycho giving both cops and crooks nightmares is so riveting that it makes you sad for all the roles he'll never have a chance to tackle. Ledger died at the beginning of this year just after wrapping production on “The Dark Knight.” So this film offers his last completed performance.
"The Dark Knight" is the follow up film to “Batman Begins,” the 2005 movie that rebooted the franchise by going back to Batman’s origins. That film was brought to the screen by British indie filmmaker Christopher Nolan, Brit actor Christian Bale and American writer David S. Goyer. This same team, joined by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, now delivers the next installment in this DC Comics franchise. The creative team darkens the tone even more as they pair Batman up with his infamous nemesis The Joker.
Picking up essentially where “Batman Begins” left off, we find Gotham is marginally better off but still struggling with corruption and crime. Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman looking years younger than he did in the first film) is supposed to arrest the vigilante Batman (Christian Bale) on sight but instead he’s been partnering with the Caped Crusader to try and capture a group of mobsters. It’s difficult to determine whom to trust but the new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is looking like the White Knight Gotham needs. Although Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a little suspicious of Dent’s intentions with Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over and improving on Katie Holmes), Bruce’s former squeeze. But throwing everything into chaos and panic is the arrival of The Joker (Heath Ledger). He feels no loyalty to the other crooks in the city and seems solely interested in rocking the boat as violently as he can.
This new chapter in the “Batman” saga finds Bruce Wayne facing weighty decisions about how to best serve his city. Wayne has to ponder long and hard what it means to be a hero and to do what’s best in difficult times. As Batman, he had hoped that his actions would inspire people to do good but so far a gang of Batman impersonators sloppily cruising the streets is the only noticeable impact he’s had. With the appearance of the Joker, Batman faces a nemesis that he’s having trouble understanding. How do you stop a criminal if you can’t figure out his motivation or what’s driving him?
“The Dark Knight” is a very long way from the delightfully cheesy “Batman” of the 60s TV show with Adam West, and different too from Bob Kane’s 1939 creation. Nolan continues the darkening tone that began with Tim Burton and Michael Keaton but got lost somewhere around George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the nippled suit. Nolan and Bale take a somber, earnest approach to their material to deliver a sleek, dark Batman for the new millennium. In a summer of superheroes, “The Dark Knight” joins “Iron Man” and “Hellboy II” as the cream of the crop. But of the three, Nolan’s is the one that strives most to rise above its comic book origins. (Nolan seems less at home in the comics world that “Hellboy’s” Guillermo Del Toro or “Iron Man’s” Jon Favreau, and doesn’t seem to have any of the geeky fan in him, maybe I’m wrong but that’s just how he comes across.) Nolan delivers a B movie dressed up very elegantly as a respectable Hollywood drama – just one with kick ass action and a leading man in a cape. It’s nice to see a director and star that aren’t condescending to the genre. In this world, Dent can reference ancient Rome and choosing a champion to defend city, and consider that one must “die a hero or live long enough to be a villain.” Contemplating what it means to be a hero is at the heart of this film, and Alfred (once again played to perfection by Michael Caine) is constantly reminding us of the weighty choices Wayne must make.
Nolan, as with Del Toro, shuns the trendy shakycam for more elegant filming techniques. When Nolan does go for shakycam, it’s for a reason. Most notably to convey the Joker’s off kilter perspective on the world. The IMAX presentation was impressive although the audio tended to provide a mix in which the music sometimes obscured the dialogue. An announcement before the film impressed upon us that this is the first mainstream theatrical film to shoot scenes in true IMAX. Most of these were exterior scenes, often city aerials, involving stunts. You get vertigo from the aerial shot of Batman high atop a skyscraper. Plus Hong Kong looks gorgeous at night. These IMAX cityscapes present a rich shiny surface to Gotham, one that hides a dark and corrupt center. The many effects are superbly handled in the film, always adding and never distracting from the story. The bat cycle gets points for being able to go up a wall and flip, and Dent’s Two Face make-up/effects are awesome.
I know I’ll probably get flak for this – but I have to say that in an odd way this Batman does share something with the old Adam West one – they are both excessively earnest. Granted it is to very different effects and Bale is a far superior actor to West, yet there is a seriousness to both of their performances that allows the villains to steal the show. This isn’t a criticism. It’s just an observation that Batman seems to end up playing the straight man to the more colorful villains. Maybe that’s his curse for being a superhero with no super powers. But the fact that Batman is human is one of the things that makes his character so appealing. He is truly brave because he’s merely mortal and yet still trying to be the superhero. At times Nolan’s film seems to endow this Batman with what seems like super human abilities but Nolan always tries to remind us of Batman’s vulnerabilities and what he risks each time he goes out.
But no matter what Batman/Bruce Wayne tries to do, the Joker overshadows him. Contributing significantly to this is the fact that Ledger delivers such a riveting performance. Nolan knows the power of Heath’s performance and the quirky physicality of it. The first shot of Ledger as the Joker is from behind yet we can immediately tell by the stance that this is the Joker. Later, when he enters a roomful of mobsters, again the camera is behind him and all we hear is that crazy laugh. Yet in both cases we immediately know we are in the presence of the Joker. Nolan is very controlled in how he presents this character that considers himself “an agent of chaos.” The contrast between how the Joker is presented and what he represents works exceedingly well. So well in fact that we miss him every time he leaves the frame.
There are all sorts of stories about the prep work Ledger did for the role – everything from holing up alone in a hotel room to keeping a diary of the Joker’s thoughts. As inspiration he supposedly turned to Alan Moore's “Batman: The Killing Joke,” and “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” as well as “A Clockwork Orange's” Alex and the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious. But whatever he did to prepare, it has more than paid off. He seems to have changed not only his voice but his complete physical being to play the Joker. He has quirky moves and ticks, and effectively creepy make-up – with its badly drawn mouth and constantly peeling white face paint. Ledger’s Joker manages to be disturbingly vicious yet irresistibly appealing. I don’t know how he managed to pull off such a contradiction. Part of it may be that Ledger’s Joker is, despite all the eccentricities and psychosis, a very clear, precise character. And there’s something about that precision that is alluring. The Joker knows exactly what he is and what he wants to accomplish, and he’s fearlessly committed to just shaking up the established order. He’s an anarchist and he doesn’t seem to fear punishment or death. How do you deal with someone like that?
I don’t know if it’s Ledger’s delivery or if the writers (Nolan and his brother Jonathan working from a story idea by Goyer) were just more inspired with his dialogue than anyone else’s but the Joker does get all the best lines. And they’re not you’re typical jokey zingers. The Joker explains to Batman that “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve,” as he foreshadows a new wave of terrorist criminals. To Dent he explains, how he simply wants to show the schemers how futile it is to try and control anything. To the mob’s minions, he explains there’s room for “aggressive expansion” but with only one spot open, “we’ll have tryouts” (handing them weapons as he walks away). He reveals his twisted nature by explaining quite simply that guns are no fun, “too quick. With knives you can savor the little moments.” The lines and Ledger’s delivery make these memorable moments that define his character. There’s also the brilliance of having him in drag (a brilliantly inspired nurse’s uniform) and countering Dent’s accusation of masterminding everything with “Do I look like a man with a plan?” (Ledger in this nurse’s uniform waddling out of the hospital as it blows up is alone worth the price of admission). At one point the Joker says he’s like a dog chasing cars, he wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one. And later we see him hanging his head out the window of a car like a dog lapping up the breeze. And maybe that’s why we can’t completely hate him; he’s like a animal following the only instinct he knows. He scares us but we’re attracted as well.
Nolan handles the violence with an intriguing mix of highly suggestive and disturbing set ups but rather bloodless executions. The Joker creates chilling tension with his threat to cut smiley faces on everyone, yet Nolan never lets him spill a single drop of blood. Maybe that’s a way to insure that we don’t start to hate him. If the violence gets too real, it’s harder to laugh at what the Joker does. The result is an excruciating build up of tension but a quick release that makes it all seem not so bad. There are some truly twisted bits like the disappearing pencil act. I won’t say anything else about that except that that scene serves up a brilliant bit of business for the Joker. The film is dark and disturbing on some levels yet it could have gone further in other ways. Nolan choices reflect a kind of tastefulness on his part that keeps the film in a fantasy realm.
The Joker tells Batman that they are both freaks and suggests to Batman “you complete me.” And in a sense, the Joker represents the chaos Batman is trying to keep at bay. Ledger’s the Joker feels like a villain for our times, very contemporary in the kind of terrorism he’s engaging in. He just wants to create fear – something that both terrorists and politicians feed on to try and get what they want. The film indirectly comments on the war on terror, as Batman feels compelled to go to any extreme to protect the city. But Bruce Wayne’s trusted CEO Fox, played by Morgan Freeman, provides him with a very powerful moral conscience. When asked to use technology that would allow him to listen in to 30 million people, Fox responds that’s not in his job description and threatens to quit. But the film and even Fox taciturnly give their approval to extreme methods if it produces results and circumstances are dire enough. I can accept that in the world of Batman but maybe not in the real world.
I had a few minor reservations about the ending and the hope it tries to generate. Oddly enough, it sparked a moral debate with my fifteen-year-old son who took the idealistic side, believing wholeheartedly that people faced with a choice would not choose to kill someone else even if it meant saving their own life (I had a less favorable view of human nature). But I was happy to hear that even though he slaughters thousands a day in his video games he still feels strongly that taking a life in the real world is not an easy choice. Now of course I feel horribly jaded and cynical for thinking less of humanity than he did.
“The Dark Knight” (rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements) is one of the best comic book films around. And I appreciate it even more as the final showcase for Heath Ledger. But his performance is so joyously wicked that I didn’t feel sad until the end when the Joker tells Batman they are destined to fight forever. Hearing “forever” slip out of his lips suddenly made me realized that this is the last time we’re likely to see ledger on screen (Terry Gilliam shot some scenes with Ledger for his film but who knows if that film will ever see the light of day). Ledger was a mere 28-years-old when he passed away and in “The Dark Knight” he just seemed to be tapping into his potential and maturing as an artist. “The Dark Knight” proves a fitting swan song for this amazing young man… and it’s an all-around awesome film to boot.
Companion viewing: “Batman Begins,” “Batman: The Movie,” “The Krays” (to see how some real criminals put a smile on their victims’ faces), “Night Watch” (for some similar large vehicle stunts)