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THE DARK KNIGHT IS THE YEAR'S BEST MOVIE SO FAR...NO JOKE!

How can you possibly write a review of The Dark Knight without going on and on and on about how great Heath Ledger is as The Joker. Remember the first time you saw Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? Or saw Darth Vader walking through the doorway? Or Jack Nicholson busting through the bathroom door in The Shining? I was curious that the advance buzz on Ledger's performance was just misty eyed fondness since it was his last full movie role. Ledger's Joker is easily one of the greatest screen bad guys of all time. And I'm not talking "of all time" like just the last 20 years. Seriously, it's one for the ages.

Every second Heath Ledger is on screen in this movie is like watching the most beautiful train wreck you've ever seen. So good, in fact, that if he killed Batman 15 minutes in and just spent the rest of the movie fucking up Gotham City, I'd have been perfectly fine with it. Every little detail he brings to the part is gorgeous. His lip licking, hair flinging, posture, cackling and overall presence just exudes evil. But an evil unlike anything you've

seen before. The Joker isn't looking to to become the king of crime, or even kill Batman. He merely wants, as Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, "to watch the world burn."

The Joker appears as a fully realized creature without the tedium of an origin story. You get a bank heist that's as fast paced and tense as anything that Michael Mann has directed that just gives you a small hint of how nuts he is, but when he shows up to one of those classic table full of criminal meetings it's mindblowing. He shuffles in like a zombie that just crawled out of a swamp. Why would any of these established kingpins even give him the time of day. A simple magic trick convinces them in one of the most memorable "I really shouldn't be laughing at this because it's so sick" moments I've seen since Vincent Vega accidentally shot the kid in the backseat of Pulp Fiction.

This is truly The Joker's movie. Batman is in it and he gets to be Batman and kick some ass. He still has the same problem I have with all the other movies, old and new, is that I can't stand that black rubber outfit. Aside from a more beautiful series of capes that flutter in the wind or even fan out like a giant dragon, it still looks ridiculous. The cowl looks worse than ever. In some scenes, it looks like his cheeks are inflated. The sharp angles and eyebrow lines are almost nonexistent, at times looking like a big black blob. But if that's my biggest nitpick, then we're off to a good start.

I'm a giant Batman fan who's loved the character for nearly 35 years now. I loved the TV show for what it was, but have had big problems with all the movies. The script and performances sucked total ass in Tim Burton's 1989 debut, but Nicholson was at least funny enough to make it watchable. And Batman Returns started a trend of silliness that never stopped. Once Joel Schumaker took the franchise over, I gave up any hope. I kept watching, but I just wasn't going to get the Batman movie I wanted to see.

Fortunately Batman The Animated Series at least gave me that Batman.

Batman Begins was a good start, in that it at least tried not to be ludicrous. But I never though Ra's Al Ghul was much of a villain, and watching Liam Neeson fight Batman isn't as cinematic as I hoped for.

The Joker was made for the big screen. His colorful bigger than life persona and psychotic anything goes behavior makes him the gold standard for bad guys. The stuff he does in this movie is mind blowing. He's a scary sadistic bastard who throws choices out there many of us would be hard pressed to make. There's a lot of "What would you do?" moments that make the movie very engaging.

Aaron Eckhart is very good in different sort of way as Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne is even impressed, noting that he's putting away a ton of bad guys, and doesn't even have to wear a costume. He's charming, rugged, tough, and inspiring. Which makes his eventual fall and conversion to Two Face all the more tragic.

Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are great in their supporting roles, as is Gary Oldman in a much more fleshed out Commissioner Gordon part. Thankfully, Gordon doesn't hop on the new Bat-cycle and say, "I've got to get me one of these" in this installment.

The fight choreography and stunt work is more easy to follow than the last installment, which often was so dark it was hard to see what was happening. Batman's still a creature of the night, but he brought along a better lighting crew this time around.

There's also a nifty bit near the end where Batman has a mask modification with cameras in the eye slits that finally gives us the shiny white-eyed version of the character from the comic books, albeit for a few brief scenes.

The Nolan Brothers script is very good. It borrows some elements from Frank Miller and Alan Moore's work that defined the relationship between Batman and The Joker, and pushes it further into all new areas. There's a scene in the trailers where The Joker plays chicken with Batman in the middle of the street. Batman swerves at the last minute, because he won't kill. This "code" is something he struggles with in a very meaningful way.

Batman's entire role for Gotham city is questioned throughout the movie in a thoughtful manner that I've not seen explored often in the comic books. Is he a hero, vigilante, symbol, menace, or savior? At times he is all of these things. Copycat amateurs try to be just like him with fatal consequences. His very presence is causing people to be killed. He has serious options to unmask and end it all, but what would that bring?

There's a lot of moments for the citizens of Gotham to shine, or fail, as well.

I also thought the soundtrack was very good. It doesn't smack you over the head with the inspirational zing of Danny Elfman's work. The James Newtwon Howard and Hans Zimmer music is powerful, often punctuated with disturbing quite buzzes that makes you uncomfortable, wondering what's coming next.

I will say, that I don't recommend this film for kids at all. By omitting all profanity, sexuality, and having only incidental blood, the violence and sadistic acts that occur make it completely inappropriate for anyone under 10. I'd even watch it yourself to see if 11 or 12 year olds should watch it. It pushes the "almost R" limit more than any PG-13 movie I can think of. The Joker's actions and face are certainly the stuff of nightmares, but the scarred side of Dent's face once he becomes Two-Face is a grotesque masterpiece that's hard to look at. You can see bits of exposed bone and facial tendons, along with a fully exposed eyeball that is very discomforting to see look all about. Not cartoony in the least.

It's a shame that the merchandising aspect of this movie totally makes it seem kid friendly because all of those cereal boxes and fast food meals pimping it out are very misleading for parents who don't know any better. Personally, I think they should have just kicked it up a bit further and went for the R. It's a lot more shocking than The Matrix films.

The Dark Knight is a great movie with a lot to say, and a lot to look at. Lots to scare you and lots to thrill you. I think it's now the movie to beat for the year, too. I loved Iron Man a lot, but The Dark Knight is a whole new level of superhero film. I feel like I could write 5 more pages about how much I like it, but then I'd have to start spoiling the film.

And yes, thanks again to Heath Ledger for finally giving me the Joker, and Batman film, I've been waiting for.

-Robert Berry
rberry@retrocrush.com