The killing joke

Rated 5.0

Director Christopher Nolan takes his crime fighters and bad guys very seriously, and this second chapter in his current Batman saga is a fierce, nasty movie. The Dark Knight is a worthy follow-up to the excellent Batman Begins. It’s also so different in tone that it often feels like another director’s take on the iconic character. Nope … Nolan made both of them, and he’s done a great job of it.

If any fans of the 1960s TV show or Joel Schumacher’s campy crap are still out there hoping for a return to silliness, you might as well give up. Nolan’s view of the Batman and his enemies is far more Frank Miller—who wrote the excellent graphic novel that started the Batman rebirth, The Dark Knight Returns—than Adam West or Jim Carrey. This film takes very few breaks for laughter and gaiety. Actually, it doesn’t take any because the few laughs, especially those provided by Heath Ledger’s sick bastard Joker, are laced with dread and sickness. You might find yourself checking movie listings to see the rating it managed to score. It got a PG-13, but I think it’s an R.

At the conclusion of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) was handed a Joker playing card, an ominous indicator of bad things to come. And, man, does Ledger bring the bad with his Joker. His take on the character is that of a demonic clown whose idea of a joke is shoving a projectile in your eye or slitting your cheeks with a knife. No doubt, Jack Nicholson did a nice dark comic turn as the character in 1989’s Batman, but Ledger now takes the mantle of cinema’s most memorable Joker. There is depth to what he does here, and you’ll quickly forget that his character’s origins are rooted in comic books. Ledger’s Joker comes straight from hell.

In the past, some of the Batman films got into the bad habit of cramming too many criminals into one movie, a problem that also cursed the recent Spider-Man 3. Nolan and his writers go for two monster men in Knight, and they do a bravura job of it. We get an adequately fleshed out creep in the Joker, along with the gut-wrenching fall of District Attorney Harvey Dent, played magnificently by Aaron Eckhart. His Dent is a real man, as opposed to the cackling idiot Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in Batman Forever. The screenplay and the actor give us a significant, even heroic, back story for Dent, and when he meets his twisted fate, it’s a major tragedy.

Because Katie Holmes could not return for one reason or another, her character of Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s girl, has been taken over by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal seems to ignore everything Holmes did in the first film, resulting in the film’s one significant flaw. Holmes gave the character a certain seriousness, while Gyllenhaal fails to make her register as anything other than your typical crusading movie lawyer. She and Bale don’t share any chemistry, and their screen time together feels weird. It’s a flaw, but not one significant enough to damage the film.

Finally, major praise is due to Mr. Christian Bale—who now gets my vote for the all-time greatest costumed crime fighter performances. Better then Christopher Reeve. Better than Tobey Maguire. Nolan and Bale have made something Shakespearean out of the Batman, and Bale is just the perfect man for the job. When I watch Bale, I get the sense of an actor who has given serious thought to every word that will escape his mouth and every movement of his body. He is an absolute marvel.

Let’s hope Christopher Nolan is just getting started. The way this movie ends leaves so much open for further installments. His Batman movies are so good, it seems inconceivable that he could misfire with the character and his arc. He’s on one major roll.