Before I get into the meat of this response, there are a few things I want to get out of the way. First, I was really glad when I heard some guy talking about how he didn’t like the movie as everyone filed out. Second, I have a problem with showing movies like this one (which feature inventive psychopaths) to morons like the one sitting next to me. This guy thought the Joker was just so cool for the ways he killed people. It made me a little sick (sort of like seeing a five year-old in line for the movie did as well). The last bit… The Dark Knight is leagues better than Batman Begins and a wholly watchable–albeit exceptionally boring in parts–movie. It’s not a worthless narrative. It’s not worth much, but it’s not worthless.
I also need to mention, once again, Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer steal part and parcel from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One without crediting Miller. Here it’s a Bruce Wayne, motorcycle-man, a SWAT team fight and Gordon’s family in danger. But Nolan also lifts–and updates for modernity–quite a bit from Batman Forever.
One thing keeps The Dark Knight going and it’s Heath Ledger. He’s unbelievably good. Nothing you can read in a review can prepare you for his performance. It’s singular and exceptional. Simply, Ledger makes The Dark Knight–as absurd a prospect as Alice in Wonderland–pass for legitimate. Seeing what he’s going to do, how he’s going to deliver a line, move his eyes, makes the movie worth the rest of it.
Let’s just go through the performances, actually. It’s probably the easiest thing… first the actors, then the production.
Christian Bale is, once again, perfectly fine. He’s not so much the protagonist in The Dark Knight as a supporting player. At times he even comes behind Gary Oldman in narrative importance. There are some real problems, however, mostly with his voice. Bale’s Batman voice is awful (had they brought in Michael Keaton to dub over it, the movie would have been significantly better). He’s also not visibly fit enough to be Batman. Nolan makes a point of showing off Bale’s physique and it’s not one of a guy who drops fifty stories without twisting his ankle. But Bale’s kind of perfect for Nolan’s Batman movies. I wouldn’t want anyone particularly good to embarrass himself in them.
I’m trying to stay moderately positive (hey, it’s the biggest hit of all-time or something, right? That means it must be good… not just a side-effect of American high school graduates getting progressively less educated every year), so I’ll mention Morgan Freeman. Freeman’s shameless with what he’ll add to his filmography these days and The Dark Knight is no different. He turns in his standard, wise but still sharp old guy performance and it’s fine.
Michael Caine’s character is still poorly written, but he’s in this one less and is, therefore, better than he was in the first.
Cillian Murphy’s funny in his cameo. If Nolan had given his scene more weight, the movie would have been better. But given what Nolan thinks he does well, it’s no surprise he doesn’t actually recognize when he has a good scene going.
Maggie Gyllenhaal isn’t awful. She’s not any good, but a lot of it has to do with her scenes. The Dark Knight‘s approach to the American legal system is sillier than the Adam West television program would have portrayed. Gyllenhaal’s in the middle of that setting for the first act, when she’s not trying to do the love triangle stuff (with Bale and Aaron Eckhart). Gyllenhaal has zero chemistry with either. The only time she’s believable is when she’s talking to them on the phone. All gossip aside, it’s no wonder Katie Holmes didn’t come back for this one. The character isn’t just the worst written in the movie, it’s one of the worst written female characters in a long time. After–in the first movie–being a strong female character, here Gyllenhaal plays second fiddle to Eckhart. It reminds me of a professor telling women to become lawyers instead of paralegals… Nolan takes the character from being a lawyer and demotes her.
Now to Eckhart. I haven’t seen a worse performance out of someone since Nicole Kidman in Malice. Similar to her performance, here Eckhart’s hair does most of the acting. He’s exceptionally bad. In fact, he’s silly. If it weren’t for the overbearing music and the constant, weighty pretension, I would have laughed through every one of his line deliveries. Luke Perry would have been better….
Gary Oldman, on the other hand, actually ruins the movie. It’s not all him–Christopher Nolan’s (hang on, I need to check a thesaurus) putrid dialogue helps. I can’t figure out why the Joker writing is so much better than the rest of the material. Maybe someone good did a rewrite. But seriously, Oldman does ruin the movie in the end. He’s never for one moment convincing. Not just as a police officer or police lieutenant–Oldman’s cop wouldn’t be taken seriously on “Barney Miller”–but as an American. Oldman affects a strange, semi-Southern accent and it’s clear he’s just cheaply covering his own. He’s also revealed to be, at best, a drooling idiot (thanks to Nolan’s cavernous plot holes).
Suffering through Oldman and Eckhart for Ledger basically sums up the experience of The Dark Knight. Nolan’s choice in cameos is bad–Eric Roberts is particularly bad, but Anthony Michael Hall isn’t much better. The Tiny Lister cameo at the end is just funny. It sort of shows off The Dark Knight for what it really is… a movie with Tiny Lister as a big mean black guy in it.
Nolan’s a lousy director, incapable of filling a Panavision frame with any content. Oddly enough, there are some great action scenes in the movie. I don’t know how Nolan managed to conceive of such great set pieces–probably from reading Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One–but there are a number of them. Those excellent action scenes make the movie a lot more watchable, even though Ledger’s present in most of them so they’re covered. There’s one particularly good car sequence he isn’t in though. Most of the credit belongs to Lee Smith, who does a great job (a look at his filmography reveals he’s worked with good directors on occasion).
The much lauded opening bank robbery scene is moronic, however. And that idiocy is the real problem with Nolan and his Dark Knight. It’s not realistic. Trying to make it realistic just makes it seem stupid. The court room scenes play less realistic than “Night Court.” The mayor’s wearing eye shadow for some reason. The city is completely overrun with crime, on an inconceivable scale. It’s ludicrous, made far worse by Nolan’s pretentiousness. My wife’s only seen this one so I had to tell her it was actually less pretentious than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is probably the most pretentious movie I’ve seen since I saw Begins. Nolan’s totally and utterly full of shit.
Luckily, he’s got Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard back scoring the movie and, wow, is their collaboration terrible. One of the worst side-effects of 28 Days Later is everyone mimicking the way that film used its score. Zimmer and Howard’s score seems like it’s for the video game version of 28 Days Later. Calling it derivative doesn’t begin to cover it–The Dark Knight uses the music to drown the viewer in its self-importance. There isn’t a single subtle note in the duo’s score.
When I got done with Batman Begins, I figured that film would result in a better sequel. And it has. The Dark Knight is idiotic, but it’s still not as dumb as the first one. Ledger’s performance will likely get me back to the theater see it again; probably get me to buy this dumb movie on disc. But–again stealing from Frank Miller, I think from Dark Knight Returns–the film’s conclusion is a bit of a pickle for a sequel. Can the next one be even better–maybe even approach being good? It might… there’s still some of Batman: Year One to plagiarize. But will Nolan recognize the good material and curate it?
No, he won’t.