CINEMA: Knight On Broke Bat Mountain

NEW YORK TIMES: LOS ANGELES — Fevered fans pushed “The Dark Knight,” the sixth of the Warner Brothers series of “Batman” movies, to record three-day ticket sales of $155.3 million over the weekend, shoring up what so far had been a wobbly year at the box office.

REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008, directed by Christopher Nolan, 152 minutes, U.S.)

BuskirkByline_REV.jpgBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The Dark Knight, the most hotly-hyped movie of the summer has arrived and it is a big, turkey dinner of a blockbuster. It has non-stop action, it features real actors and it has the late Heath Ledger giving us a tantalizing glimpse of the unpredictable talent he might have become. It’s a mouth-watering spread, too bad that director Christopher Nolan keeps piling things on our plate until we leave the theater feeling over-stuffed, logy and unwell. You’ll wish there was some Bat-o-Bismal in your utility belt. [Holy bad Bat pun, Buskirk! — The Ed.]

Still, Heath Ledger’s Joker is one scene-stealing side dish you can never get enough of. Up until now his specialty was playing handsome, monosyllabic young men muffled by a dignified reserve verging on muteness so his Joker — a walking IED of a performance — has the shock of discovery to go with our awe at his bottomless sadism and knife-wielding nihilism. Minus his good looks — those photogenic cheek bones warped by what looks like Kabuki melting under a heat lamp — and projecting a deeply unhinged demeanor Ledger ignores his innate strengths and finds some new, weird depths in the deep of some private abyss. Dialing back the hooting cackles of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson, Ledger’s Joker taunts his prey with a cruel wit and black-as-coal humor that recalls Dennis Hopper’s malevolent Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. He’s labeled a terrorist during the film and yet the scariest thing about him is that unlike a terrorist, The Joker has no agenda, other than triggering an endless orgy of deadly mayhem and suffering — his smeary visage evoking an inner-entropy, a psychic decay made only creepier with the realization the Ledger himself is jolting us from beyond the grave.

His arrival in the opening bank robbery is so bravura it carries the first half of the film, even as Nolan starts piling on situation after situation, character after character. Aaron Eckhart is the crusading Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent, whose success at fighting crime has wooed away Batman’s girl Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing the much-derided Mrs. Tom Cruise from Batman Begins) and threatens to leave Batman irrelevant in a crime-free Gotham. There’s a mob boss played by Eric Roberts who is in league with a fugitive Hong Kong accountant, there’s Morgan Freeman as Batman’s tech wizard worried about his surveillance abilities, there’s Commissioner Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) shady crime-fighting methods, copycat Batman vigilantes and a number of purposeful 9-11 references.

Everyone is excellent in the film but once they’re all thrown into action The Dark Knight bogs down into a ponderous hash which sows confusion to the point that we lose track of exactly where everyone is running to and for what purpose. Seeing how unwieldy and inchoate things get here, it is hard to believe that Nolan once did surgically-focused work like the amnesiac thriller Memento. At two and a half hours The Dark Knight stretches its suspense to the breaking point and beyond time and time again, exhausting us with the foreboding tones of its never-subsiding nerve-tattering score and its attempt to top each innumerable explosion with ever-larger explosions. You get adrenaline fatigue well before the credits finally roll. Oh, yes. I’d almost forgotten to mention Christopher Bale as the title character. Odd how one can be upstaged while wearing a man-sized bat suit. As Bruce Wayne, he ranges between terse and terser and as Batman he is lost amongst the rapid-fire ADD-friendly cuts Nolan uses to inject some energy into a character weighed down by fifty pounds of fiberglass and latex. Justice may triumph in the end, yet like all of the Batman films it is the villain who steals the show.

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