I am not a Batman fanboy. I am usually bored and confused by films based on comic books (calling them “graphic novels” is the ultimate in geek denial). If I recall correctly, I have enjoyed one, or maybe two, of the films in this franchise, but not to any great extent. I couldn’t really pick Heath Ledger out of a lineup and don’t really recall anything he was in before his untimely passing.
I had also gotten tired of hearing all the hype about this installment, and about the amazing, Oscar-worthy performance by Heath Ledger. I went in skeptical, to say the least.
I walked out a believer.
Heath Ledger gives a miraculous performance as The Joker. The character is completely original, although I kept expecting him to come across as Nicholson (either in The Shining or as The Joker) or as Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), but he didn’t. Ledger’s Joker has to be seen to be believed. His performance is absolutely worthy of an Oscar nod, and if I were a betting man I’d say he’ll end up winning. He’s that good.
Most of the rest of the cast is solid, as well. Michael Caine is dependable as Alfred, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a refreshing change from Mrs. Tom Cruiscientologist, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are spot on, and Aaron Eckhart gives a good performance as Harvey Dent. And, believe it or not, Eric Roberts (yes, THAT Eric Roberts) gives a great performance in a smallish mobster role. There’s even a pinch of gratuitous Anthony Michael Hall and a fleeting dash of Cillian Murphy.
The weak link in this installment is Christian Bale, unfortunately. It’s not so much that he’s bad, it’s just that he’s…lukewarm. Tepid. Translucent. As Bruce Wayne he’s simply boring, and as Batman they’ve really pumped up the bass on his growl, to the point where it’s distracting every time he talks through his bared, gritted teeth. I think the problem with his performance is more directorial than thespian, but his character just doesn’t have the requisite impact for a near-superhero.
It was also distracting how clearly it was seen to be Chicago standing in for Gotham. They even had a cop played by Ron Dean, who was one of the two Chicago cops in The Fugitive (and then again in Chain Reaction), which simply added to the Chicago-osity of the mood.
The story is, well, simply a Macguffin to get the pot stirred up. The action is good, the fights are good, and the effects are good, with the exception of the motorcycle, which just doesn’t move realistically (even allowing for the suspension of disbelief necessary for this type of film).
Also, the ending of the film seemed tacked on and/or cut down. After all of the machinations of the film, at the very, very end, just before the credits roll, Batman volunteers to be falsely accused of crimes so that he can be hated by the public and pursued by the cops, because, er…well, because…um…hm, well, he and Commissioner Gordon both seem to think it will help make Gotham a better place, because…uh…let’s see…so, if Batman is now seen as bad, while still trying to do good, but is despised by the public and hunted by the cops, that’s good because…er…well…hm. I have no clue, but I guess it had to end that way because of something in the comic book, but it was really shoehorned into the end of the film abrubtly, and it was almost clumsy enough to spoil the whole thing.
Luckily, Heath Ledger as The Joker is good enough, and bad enough, to transcend idiotic Hollywood studio machinations and make the film memorable and a near-classic.