It is crammed with great actors, with a delicious and bittersweet farewell from the late Heath Ledger, sturdy work by the returning players, some chewy bit turns by worthies from Eric Roberts and William Fichtner to Anthony Michael Hall.
'The Dark Knight'
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes
Industry rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.
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It's still too long, especially for a comic-book movie. But with Ledger's last performance director Nolan was blessed with the gift of light. As dark as The Dark Knight inevitably is, this is a Batman who isn't afraid to strut his stuff in broad daylight. And this is a Joker who isn't afraid to have a few laughs, in between murders, torturing, kidnapping and robberies.
"I create chaos," this new criminal on the block declares. And so he does. The Joker kills crooks and cops alike, betrays associates and crosses a United Nations of Mobsters -- Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Russians and Chinese.
What he really wants is a chance to destroy "The Bat Man," the crusading District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, very good) and the anti-mob task force led by Lt. Gordon ( Gary Oldman).
Where does The Bat Man, Gotham's resident vigilante, fit into all this? He wonders himself, inspired as he is by the methods and effectiveness and courage of DA Dent. Is he even necessary?
"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," Dent declares, tellingly, comparing Gotham to a Rome that needed a Caesar to bring it order.
Bale, in his second Bat-turn, is more obscured by the costume and the synthesized voice. He barely registers. Bruce Wayne/Batman is troubled by the inhumanity he sees in himself, the urge to torture, the infringements on freedom that it may take to make the city safe. Fortunately, he has his Oscar-winning butler ( Michael Caine) and gadget guru ( Morgan Freeman) as his conscience.
Nolan stages a couple of terrific chases, a solid bank robbery and one defies-belief kidnapping from Hong Kong. But mostly, he's all about making this a somewhat omnipotent Batman in a somewhat real world. That he manages to do something Tim Burton and his successors never did -- give us moments of genuine pathos -- is a tribute to that reality.
Gyllenhaal makes us realize what was missing in Holmes' acting arsenal in Batman Begins. But it is Ledger, in a sadistic, callous and psychotic turn (with a fey, nasal voice), who dominates the picture. He has the timing, the manic mannerisms, the winning way with the one-liner.
"I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."
And the screenplay lets him keep his secrets. This is a Joker who isn't above lying about "how I got these scars." He is a mystery.
For all its excesses, its too-obvious foreshadowing and the assaultive style, this Dark Knight is one comic-book film franchise that hasn't outstayed its welcome. The lovely pall hanging over it is that Heath Ledger hadn't outstayed his, either.