Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Good (Not so) Old Summer Blockbuster: Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight"



Could there be anything more exciting? Big screen, big sound, the Paramount or Warner or MGM lion roaring it out, full concert, ear bleeding sound and then all goes dark and the hundreds of millions put into the flick and its promotion all of it, all that promise, you'll know, those first minutes.

Achey for spring I guess I'm suddenly nostalgic for a good old summer blockbuster.


The Dark Knight's opening is up there for me with the best of the blockbuster openings, up there with The Matrix and the two Terminators (we'll ignore all that came after). OK maybe not quite up there with The Matrix, cause man the chills I got when Carrie-Anne Moss jumped in the air and time stopped, sort of, and you knew, you just knew - and here's where those spine tingles came in - that time had stopped for a reason; that the effect had a purpose, that in fact the whole movie might just have to do with the effect. This was gonna be awesome. Still The Dark Knight's opening is a pretty ass-whooping, popcorn-hurtling, edge-of-your-seat making killer wicked ass fun start to a pretty damn awesome summer movie.

In the second of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (and muchos kudos to Batman Begins, which has some killer training sequences - and don't training sequences always trump  a given flick's final fight?) it's a high-pitched sound, a disturbing bit of score - the high whine of a violin perhaps? - that starts things off as we circle round to get aerial views of the big city, of Gotham, of the skyscrapers. There's a ticking sound, like a bomb that might go off any second. Focusing in now. A glass building, a window, high up. The glass shatters as the window is smashed out. Thugs in clown masks who've just shot it to shit.   Rope shot out across the skyline, thugs ziplining from one building to another. A man on a street corner seen from behind, just standing there, with his greasy hair and a clown mask hung limp from the arm at his side. A bank is about to get robbed but already we know, cause we are not so much smiling as worrying, that this won't be your typical bank heist. That the masked thugs robbing the place keep killing each other off for a bigger stake is a tip off. Their discussions about some character named the Joker, even more troublesome ...

In my favourite blockbusters where good battles evil and good will ultimately prevail, I need my evil to be pretty effin evil. Thus a childhood reverence of the first Termintator. I was considered a pretty good child, overall, give or take, yet I was a Darth Vader lover all the way. Skywalker was a pussy. Hans was cool, but Darth was cooler.

The Dark Knight is premised, the whole thing, on the sinister notion of an enemy so crazy as to have no motive - how are you to fight, to defeat, to even approach an enemy that because he has no motive, has no clear vulnerability? The terminator had no fear of death, but it had purpose. The Joker only celebrates chaos and kills at will.

But much much much more important than all that psycho-babble-stuff is that the opening has you knowing: this film is gonna be coo-ool. The gun play, the bank robbery, the ziplining robbers, the way it all goes down - the whole thing is just so slick and smooth. It is, at least for me, the pleasure of watching something you could never make. Something several head spaces above and beyond what I understand and know. The sheer technical feat, the utter crafty cleverness of being able to stage a gun fight, never mind one that will involve moving vehicles (ie. sixteen wheelers and fat-ass batmobiles) and a rocket launcher. Repeat viewing of a movie like this is to repeat the thrills of those action sequences (the Batmobile turns into a motorcycle - do you even remember how cool that was?) and as much to continue to marvel at not being able to answer the question: how the hell did he do that?

Of course, what separates the A-list action flick from its Van Damme equivalents is the level of acting.
Enough has been written and said about Heath Ledger. I can only begin to allow myself to enjoy the level of his performance knowing that he actually made another movie before ending his life. Still, such a disturbing character performed by a clearly disturbed young man. It gets in the way. It also intensifies. Undoubtedly it confuses. But fact is, the performance is assured, it's powerful and most of all it's haunting. From the tongue licking tics to the humourous bits, there's not a false start in Ledger's transformation into the Joker. It's total commitment. It's fascinating and it's terrifying and wholly unpredictable. You keep asking yourself: what is this guy gonna do next? And he'll surely wrong-foot you at every turn.

What a standout performance can problematically do, though, is overshadow the ensemble behind it that props it up as high as this one did. At the forefront of this band of mere players sits Gary Oldman. Remember Gary? Remember in the 1990s when he was the crown prince, the king of cool, the ultimate bad guy. Whether Dracula or the dread-head thug that thought he was black in True Romance, he just always and consistently rocked the house. So intense, so spontaneous, smart, scary, interesting, complex. And then like that, boom! he disappeared or at least seemed to. (Another phenomenal British actor getting lost in the mediocre shuffle of the Harry Potter series just doesn't cut it for me.) I sort of see The Dark Knight as Oldman's return, but now he is older, now he is wiser and now he no longer is trying to play for drooping cigarette from the mouth cool. No, now he's gonna play it character actor beautiful, which is to say subtle. He is the character of most integrity. The family man. The quiet man. And while The Dark Knight really is one of the darkest big blockbusters in ages, it's easy to forget that there is a whole hell of a lot of heart and humanity in Oldman's portrayal of Commisioner Gordon.

Even the littlest roles, like the bank manager - William Fichtner (small but alway memorable roles in movies like Heat): it's his face . The power of this guy's reactions intensifies the entire robbery. That and that he has some ass-whooping rifle reloading gun-power of his own. Considering that every robber in the scene is masked, it kind of makes sense that the one guy who speaks, that has a face you can see can express as much as he does with it. The fear. The anger. The outrage. And then, ultimately, the shock.

Even the love story between Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) comes across as passionate and intense and strong thanks to the level of these actors' performances. Nolan's decision to replace Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal was, let's be honest, at first a disappointment. But once you get over that Gyllenhall isn't quite the looker that Homes is, you realize the lady makes up for looks in spades with her acting chops.

Even the briefest of conversations between Bruce Wayne and Alfred can feel so weighted, thanks to the gravitas of Sir Michael Caine.

Put this all together, the craft, the opening, the choice of actors, making it all work - this is a director's movie extraordinare and while I was not floored by Inception like so many others, I think his work on these Batman movies is nothing short of brilliant. Cause I don't care if you eat popcorn with your movies or if you need subtitles to call them art - whatever you're eating, whatever you're calling them The Dark Knight series of movies rocks and it's thanks to the sure hand, pretty perfect pacing (other than its being about twenty minutes too long) and the never-ending intensity that this is a movie worth owning. Love it. Love it.

Over and out.

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