Ledger's Joker comes up aces in “Dark Knight.”


 


Maniacal never looked so good. That's not because Heath Ledger was easy on the eyes, either. It's because the late actor delivered such a chilling performance as the demonic and despicable Joker in "The Dark Knight."

That Ledger was able to humanize such a terrifyingly dangerous character makes this performance worthy of a posthumous Oscar nomination. As mentally twisted as the Joker is, Ledger did inject him with a dose of playfulness and lip-smacking frolic - and crazy eyes that stare right through you.

Christian Bale, in a reprisal of the role he first played in 2005, is the Armani-clad billionaire Bruce Wayne by day and the caped crusader by night.

Though Bale delivers a bullet-proof performance - he's more comfortable behind the cowl this time out -  it's unfortunate for him that Batman's rival was a far more rich  and complex character. Batman's angst-ridden act and pontificating about heroes is stale compared to the dynamic deviousness of the Joker.

When we catch up with Batman, new hotshot district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are out to destroy organized crime in Gotham City.  They call on Batman to help. As the streets are wiped clean of crime, a fast-rising villain known as the Joker unleashes terror on Gotham and forces Batman dangerously close to crossing the line between menace and crusader.

In his follow-up to "Batman Begins," director Christopher Nolan
("Memento," "The Prestige") again presents a bold and exciting film full of layers and complicated characters. It's easy to forget this is rooted in a comic book as Nolan journeys into the minds, hearts and souls of his characters. "The Dark Knight" goes beyond good-versus-evil into realms of order and chaos, sacrifice for the greater good and politics, of course.

Even the film's title is a double whammy. "Dark Knight" also applies to Dent's descent into darkness after his face is burned in an accident he blames on Batman. In a very Darth Vader-like turn to the dark side, the Joker "took Gotham's white knight and brought him down."

Transforming from a do-gooder to evildoer, Dent becomes the villainous Two-Face.

The opening bank heist scene -  a sequence executed as well as any Boston Ballet performance - sets up a thrilling 2 ½-hour high-speed ride with minimal bumps in the road. What hurts the film is a script that could use fewer cliche-ridden diatribes ("The night is darkest before the dawn - dawn's coming"). And there's this business of a character coming back from the dead without any explanation as to how.

Taking itself a bit too seriously, the film touches on politics as the Joker is a self-described "agent of chaos" - domestic terrorist? - who blows up buildings in Gotham City. Yes, peace does come with a price. We get it.

Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in "Batman Begins").

Gadget-guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and the wry butler of Wayne Manor, Alfred (Michael Caine) are a dynamic duo who provide the film's solid foundation, one built on the backs of two Oscar winners.

But it's Ledger who does the impossible. He makes you forget about Jack Nicholson's and Cesar Romero's iconic Jokers and makes this a "Knight" to remember. 

Reach Dana Barbuto at dbarbuto@ledger.com.

THE DARK KNIGHT

4 stars

PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. Cast includes Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Directed by Christopher Nolan.