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A good 'Knight'
Heath Ledger stands out as the Joker in Batman sequel

The Dark Knight (PG-13)

3 stars out of 4

For starters, let's set the record straight: this is not Heath Ledger's last movie. That would be "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," due in 2009.

Secondly, every positive thing you've heard about Ledger's performance as the Joker is true. He owns this movie and will be the odds-on favorite for Best Supporting Actor at next year's Academy Awards.

Nothing against Jack Nicholson, who played the same role in 1989's relatively tepid "Batman," but compared to Ledger, Nicholson's Joker was an innocuous, annoying little school boy. Ledger's Joker even bests Nicholson's bravura turn in "The Departed" and might just be the most purely evil character in movie history.

Unlike "Batman Begins" where he was the main attraction, Christian Bale wisely steps to the side and lets Ledger run the show - and comes off looking all the better for it. In fact, every actor in the movie fares better thanks to Ledger. He single-handedly transforms this film from the standard, comic-book action blowout into an epic, mind-bending, psychological crime thriller.

Even though the movie opens with a bank robbery masterminded by the Joker, money is the last thing on his mind. He's doing it solely to escalate friction between the Gotham City Police and the mob and to make Batman (Bale) look bad. His guiding force is the desire to create bedlam and chaos, solely for the sake of doing it. In one of the movie's best scenes, the Joker compares himself to a dog chasing a car. He loves the challenge but isn't quite sure what to do if he ever actually catches the car. The pursuit provides all of the rush.

Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, has bad news spilling off of his plate. Longtime flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is now dating Harvey Dent (Aaron Echkhart), an ambitious D.A. whose talents match his ferocious professional drive. Dent's not ready to label Batman the reckless vigilante the public has, but he isn't his biggest fan either. Wayne and Dent form an uneasy alliance, mostly out of deference to Rachel. During a fundraiser and in a manner not all that far removed from Bale's "American Psycho" character, Wayne flatters Dent with left-handed compliments while toying with his psyche.

Director Christopher Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan continue their reconstruction of the dark Batman pathos, further distancing it from the cheesy camp of the TV series and the fantasy-world pastels of Tim Burton's two films. Gotham (actually Chicago) and Hong Kong lend the new franchise a real-world grit and sleek glamour never before associated with the Batman character.

Although modern technology plays a big part, the gadgets are almost non-existent and the lead character is also more to-the-point and less of a brooding head case. "The Dark Knight" is closer to creator Bob Kane's original vision than what we've come to expect from a superhero movie.

Clocking in at two-plus hours, the movie does have a few lulls and narrative hiccups along the way, and the ending leaves the fate of too many key characters twisting in the wind. But there's little doubt that the Nolans, Bale and most of the others will be back for another round. (Warner Bros.)