MOVIE REVIEW- 'Dark Knight': Batman's back and worth several views

a still from this week's filmTwo hours has rarely flown by as rapidly as it does in The Dark Knight. My jaw dropped so often I finally got tired of picking it up and let it lie there. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan dispenses with the introductions, training and deep psychology– fear of bats, guilt over parents' death and need to avenge it, etc.– that bogged down Batman Begins, and hits the ground running.

Steve WarrenBut there's a wild card in the deck– a Joker, as you may have heard. Heath Ledger's indelible semi-final performance deserves all the superlatives that have been heaped upon it and the accolades yet to come. In addition to being frightening and unpredictable, Ledger adds a spirit of fun that was missing from Batman Begins. Okay, let it be dark and intense, but at the end of the day we're still talking about a freaking comic book character!

Quite the reverse of Batman, the Joker isn't psychoanalyzed at all. He's simply pure evil, like a classic monster in Alien or Jaws. The closest anyone comes to explaining him is, "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."

The good guys are back, all but one in the same body. Christian Bale is billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his crimefighting alter ego, Batman (usually referred to as "The Batman," presumably because he's the genuine article). He's assisted by Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne family butler, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the technical genius Bruce promoted to CEO of Wayne Enterprises but who still designs Batgadgets on the side– a full day for a man of retirement age. He gives Bruce a Batsuit that's "lighter, faster, more agile."

Still playing "She loves me, she loves me not" with Bruce is his childhood friend Rachel Dawes, who knows his secret but can't commit to him until Batman gets Gotham cleaned up and retires. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role from Katie Holmes but apparently came aboard too late for the film to be rewritten to take full advantage of the special qualities she might have brought to it. Continuing her tradition of getting involved with her bosses, Rachel is seriously dating the new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

Dent, sometimes called "Gotham's White Knight," seems too good to be true. Batman vets him through the only cop he knows he can trust, Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who now heads Gotham P.D.'s Major Crimes Unit, and joins forces with Dent despite his personal jealousy over Rachel. (Dent's coin-tossing gimmick would have seemed fresher before No Country for Old Men. Now you keep waiting for him to slip and call someone "Friend-o.")

With those pieces in place, the movie zips along like a pinball for about two perfectly paced hours. Near the end of that time, it's been widely publicized, a new persona of Dent's emerges to add yet another complication.

The Joker orchestrates a climactic situation that's like a Saw movie on a Titanic scale, but around this point The Dark Knight runs into problems. Yes, it's two hours of fantastically good cinema, but the movie runs two and a half hours. That's too much of a great thing. Even subtracting 10 minutes for credits, you have 20 minutes that doesn't measure up.

What happens is that director Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, working from a story by Christopher and David S. Goyer, have written themselves into a corner and have to talk their way out. It's not all bad, but it's generally anticlimactic and definitely not on the level of what came before.

The Dark Knight seems pre-sold like few movies in history (you gotta wonder what happened to the guy who sat in the meetings and argued that people won't know what it's about if you don't keep the name "Batman" in the title– he's probably running for Congress) and there's no question that most of the crowds who flock to it will leave happy and go to see it again. The story's dense enough to warrant repeat viewings.

Let it be stated for the record that I didn't see The Dark Knight in Imax. There was a time when a critic could review a movie by watching it one time. Now it has to be seen in 2D, 3D, and Imax before you wait for the "special edition" DVD with the director's cut and alternate endings. A person can make a career of reviewing a single film!

Whatever my cavils, The Dark Knight will be successful enough that if Nolan, or whoever takes over from him, can keep up the quality, it will be a long time before the series that started with "Batman Begins" concludes with "Batman Ends."