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Revisiting the 'Dark' side
Batman sequel returns to the big screen

The Dark Knight (PG-13)

3 stars out of 4

Let's set the record straight: This was not Heath Ledger's last movie. That would be "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," due out later this year. His posthumous Golden Globe win last week and a strong sentimental push will make him the odds-on favorite at next month's Academy Awards. Just to make sure of this, Warner Bros. is re-releasing the film today. An unprecedented move considering everyone who wanted to see it already has and if not, they can buy or rent the DVD or Blu-ray.

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 the previous "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 singlehandedly transformed this film from the standard, comic-book action blowout into an epic, mind-bending, psychological crime thriller.

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 principal guiding force is the desire to create bedlam and chaos, solely for the sake of doing it. In one of 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 left-handedly flatters Dent 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 21/2 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. A new villain is introduced and there is little doubt the Nolans, Bale and most of the others will be back for another go round. (Warner Bros.)