'Dark Knight' deserves the hype

Dan Kane

The Oscar drums already are beating loudly for Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” the tragically deceased young actor’s swan song.

Given the premature Oscar buzz, with the critics’ Heath hosannas already piling up, I was starting to fear overhype.

Then I saw the movie.

Ledger is brilliant as the Joker. He owns this Batman blockbuster. And for its duration, he is very much alive. Seethingly, maniacally, comically alive.

Richly dark, atmospheric and brimming with underworld menace, “The Dark Knight” is the second in the so-far terrific “Batman” franchise launched by director Christopher Nolan in 2005 with the somber “Batman Begins.”

A skilled actor, Christian Bale makes a perfectly elusive orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne and -- after donning the ultra high-tech Batgear -- capable, obsessive superhero.

Returning are the rich supporting cast of Michael Caine as butler Alfred, both wise and funny; Gary Oldman as Sgt. Jim Gordon, a rare uncorrupted cop in Gotham City; and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, provider of Batman’s eye-popping arsenal of weapons, uniforms and gadgets.

New to the cast in “Dark Knight” are Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s new crusading district attorney, and Maggie Gyllenhall as Rachel Dawes, Dent’s girlfriend and Bruce Wayne’s lifelong friend (and secret love), who knows Batman’s identity.

Because “Batman Begins” got Batman’s origin out of the way, “The Dark Knight” blasts right into potent, violent action with a bank robbery by a band of sinister thugs wearing creepy clown masks. Can you guess who their ringleader might be? In the bank lobby, the Joker – with greasy locks, smeared clown makeup and casually comic swagger, delivers his guiding motto: “I believe what doesn’t kill you only makes you stranger.”

Soon, the Joker reveals his psychotic depths through the use of a simple pencil, before moving on to more explosive means. He is a fascinating villain. He is about mischief and mayhem, creating chaos for the sheer sport of it. “I just do things,” he says with a shrug.

It is a bravura piece of acting. Whenever Ledger is onscreen, the movie vibrates with electricity. And despite his most hideous deeds, the Joker inspires uncontrollable laughter at regular intervals.

“The Dark Knight,” which largely concerns itself with Dent’s campaign against the mob in Gotham City, is filled with awesome action set pieces. One involves a semi truck, a fleet of armored SWAT vehicles and the latest Bat-vehicle; another, a tense assassination attempt. Nolan creates a rich sense of place, with startling moments and several unexpected deaths.

For me, the film stumbles a bit near the end, moving into a jumbled action sequence that feels confusing and pointless. The 152-minute running time could have been shaved by 15 minutes at least. The Harvey Dent storyline so dominates the film that Bruce/Batman often takes a back seat.

Quibbles aside, “The Dark Knight” delivers plenty of big bang for the buck and ups the ante for superhero epics to come. And Ledger could not have ended his career with a more resonant performance. I left the theater invigorated by his intensity.

Dan Kane is entertainment editor at The Canton Repository.