Heath Ledger dazzles as the oddball villain the Joker in Christopher Nolan's masterful "The Dark Knight," with Christian Bale as a brooding Batman and Aaron Eckhart as the ambitious new district attorney, Harvey Dent. Movie review by Moira Macdonald.

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“Some men,” observes the unflappable butler Alfred (Michael Caine), “just want to watch the world burn.”

In “The Dark Knight,” the latest masterful chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, just such a man is introduced to us. The Joker (Heath Ledger) is the most chilling kind of villain: one who’s amoral for no particular reason. He revels in death and mayhem; his laugh is a cackle turned inside-out. He uses a knife because, he says, a gun is too quick. His appearance is shocking, and Nolan shows it to us in a quick, massive close-up: a face encased in the creased, grotesque makeup of a melting, bitter clown; a mop of greasy, greenish hair; the fraying purple suit of a fop turned madman.

And Ledger, in his final screen role (he died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose in January, at the age of 28), makes it one for the ages. The Joker — the only name we ever learn for him — has a nervous bravado, a slight stutter, a lip-licking habit and an odd way with dialogue: He emphasizes seemingly random words and leaves extra space in between them, like he’s speaking from a translation that wasn’t quite completed. Everything Ledger does is unexpected, and it adds up to a character both terrifying and pitiable — and a dizzying center around which Nolan spins his tale of darkness.

“Batman Begins” (2005) laid the groundwork for this movie, showing us how a gentleman superhero was born from troubled trust-fund orphan Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, quietly confident). “The Dark Knight” takes that back story and jumps off a skyscraper with it; just as Batman leaps into the night sky from unthinkable heights (captured, dazzlingly, by director of photography Wally Pfister), his cape rippling like a dark flag. It’s not quite a perfect film — Nolan seems to lose a bit of control during the film’s chaotic (and a bit overlong) final section — but it’s a pretty terrific one, providing the best kind of summer-movie thrills.

The tangled plot lets several characters come to the forefront. Ever-plagued Gotham City — no longer the deco fantasy of Tim Burton but a realistic metropolis coolly played by Chicago — is troubled by a wave of organized crime, vigilante violence and renegade Batmen, faux caped crusaders who misunderstand the superhero’s mission. New district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) attempts to impose order, assisted by police lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), but Batman and the Joker are clearly headed for an IMAX-sized collision.

Nolan, who co-wrote the film with brother Jonathan, fills “The Dark Knight” with smart decisions, not the least of which was to replace Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, the assistant district attorney who loves Bruce Wayne but can’t be with him. Gyllenhaal takes Holmes’ chirpy characterization and tempers it just enough, making Rachel smarter, slinkier (the ever-curlicued Gyllenhaal has one of filmdom’s lovelier slouches) and more soulful.

Returning are Caine’s perpetually soothing Alfred; Morgan Freeman’s sly tech-wizard Lucius Fox; Oldman’s persevering everyman Gordon; and — just for a moment — a surprise visit from a familiar villain.

But it’s Bale, Ledger and Eckhart who get the focus, playing out their drama in front of a series of breathtaking effects: a massive flipped-over truck; a daring rescue of a character thrown from a penthouse window; a fire that becomes a hellish inferno; a wheelie on the Batpod (a sort of fat-wheeled motorcycle) during a breathless chase; a pensive superhero, shoulders slumped, staring from the top of a tower at a city seemingly miles below.

See this one on the biggest screen you can (IMAX, ideally), and experience both the magic of top-notch technical filmmaking and the bittersweet pleasure of watching a young actor, gone too soon, giving a performance that won’t be forgotten.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com