The Dark Knight: Action. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Directed by Christopher Nolan. (PG-13. 150 minutes. At Bay Area theaters. For complete movie listings and show times, and to buy tickets for select theaters, go to sfgate.com/movies.)
Rather than have everyone skip ahead, first let's talk about Heath Ledger. He's the linchpin of "The Dark Knight," and he's terrific. Director Christopher Nolan wanted to make an action movie that was different from other action movies - darker, more twisted, more despairing, more bleak - and he has mostly succeeded in this latest Batman installment. He can thank Ledger for a lot of that.
"The Dark Knight" rides on Ledger's performance as the Joker. So does a lot of audience hope, and that's another element at work here. There has never been a situation quite like this: Audiences for the biggest blockbuster of the summer are flooding in, not just hoping an actor will be good but also expecting and needing him to be absolutely amazing. They want something profound, to put alongside Ledger's Ennis in "Brokeback Mountain." They want the fabled gift that arrives six months after the loved one's death.
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Ledger's performance can't live up to that. Perhaps no performance ever could, but especially in this case, with the limits built into the role. Nolan and his collaborators set out to deepen the action-movie form, but the Joker remains in essence a great comic book character, not Iago (or even Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"). Nor will audiences find some of the other things they may be unconsciously looking for - a valedictory aspect or a suggestion that the role was eating the actor alive. The truth is, Ledger's death was a surprise to everybody, and "The Dark Knight" neither hints at it nor makes sense of it. Nothing could.
But shelve those outsize expectations, and, suddenly, Ledger's performance opens up. He comes onscreen and electrifies the movie. With his smeared lipstick and painted white face, he is every clown who ever terrified a child. He speaks in a measured, Middle American accent, enunciating his words carefully, a voice that could tell bedtime stories in hell. (He seems, actually, to be imitating Al Franken.) His simplicity is fascinating, and as the movie goes on, that simplicity in itself becomes genuinely frightening.
One shot, in particular, crystallizes everything that Ledger and Nolan were working for in "The Dark Knight." It's a shot that deserves to be anthologized, YouTube-ized and immortalized: The Joker is in the foreground, walking toward the camera, playing (and really, that's the only word) with a bomb detonator. Huge explosions are going on behind him as he walks toward us, stiff and happy and hobbling, like a toddler. He's a child, and this is pure id. At the heart of existence isn't creation, but chaos.
Not everything in "The Dark Knight" lives up to or even serves such moments of grim clarity. In many ways, and certainly more than "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight" takes the form of a standard-issue action movie. It's a little too long (though never boring) and confusingly (though beautifully) shot. It's overly plotted and has too much rapid-fire cutting. Nolan had big ambitions for the movie, but before he made "The Dark Knight" into a smart action film, he wanted to make sure it functioned perfectly well as a dumb one. He could have compromised less, and should have.
Still, he has taken on a serious subject and a genuine fear. If "The Dark Knight" is about anything, it's about civic catastrophe and the fragility of our institutions in the face of blind, consuming evil. The evil is the Joker, and no one knows what to do about him - not the good guys, like Batman (Christian Bale) or the new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and not even the bad guys, like the mob boss played by Eric Roberts. The Joker doesn't play by the usual rules, because he isn't motivated by self-interest. In the words of Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine), he "just wants to see the world burn."
This time out, Bale is almost a mere member of the ensemble, the first among equals that includes Morgan Freeman as Bruce Wayne's operations chief and Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon. Skillfully, the movie shifts our attention to Eckhart, who, as Gotham's idealistic young crime buster, has the movie's most involved journey. As our focus shifts, so does that of Bruce Wayne's sweetheart, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who sees in Harvey the possibility of a stable, happy life.
With its frenetic pace and its many concessions to blockbuster formula, "The Dark Knight" is by no means a complete success. But the more it reveals its dark heart, the better it gets, and at times it seems just a step away from achieving something extraordinary. In the end, it's no leap forward, but it's certainly a step in the right direction: an action blockbuster extravaganza that's sadder than sad and never pretends otherwise.
-- Advisory: Some of the special effects are disgusting and disturbing enough to justify something more severe than the PG-13 rating. This movie is certainly not for children, nor for anyone who's afraid of clowns.
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