With plenty of pre-release buzz and a rabid built-in fanbase, one wouldn’t be surprised if the highly anticipated summer blockbuster “The Dark Knight” failed to live up to expectations.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with the latest chapter in the “Batman” series.

“The Dark Knight” isn’t just the best film in this series, it may well be one of the best comic book adaptations ever - with director Christopher Nolan creating an experience that transcends the comic book genre.

Nolan has said in interviews that he wanted to give “The Dark Knight” the same feel as the Al Pacino/Robert DeNiro crime drama “Heat,” and Nolan accomplishes that vision. The film hits the ground running with a highly tense bank heist and never lets up until the final frame.

“The Dark Knight” begins about a year after the last film, with Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) joining forces with Gotham’s new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), to help put an end to crime in the city.

But the plans are quickly altered when a new supervillian known as the Joker (Heath Ledger) emerges - intent on revealing the dark sides of Batman, Dent and the rest of the rest of Gotham.

I’ve already seen “The Dark Knight” twice - once in standard format and once in IMAX - and both times I’ve come away utterly impressed with the craftsmanship of this film.

Nolan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, has created a world that feels authentic and based in reality - a film that feels more like a crime novel than a comic book story, with its character studies of right and wrong and the large gray area in between.

Bale continues to establish himself as the perfect choice in the lead role. Previous actors have been strong as one persona or the other, but Bale has managed to bring the complete package - just as believable as the playboy Wayne as he is the butt-kicking vigilante Batman.

The cast also includes strong work from Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who replaces Katie Holmes, the weakest link of “Batman Begins.”)

But all these great actors are overshadowed by Ledger’s turn as the Joker. The Australian actor, who died shortly after completing this film, gives one of the greatest villain turns in movie history - not just evoking memories of other comic book villains, but groundbreaking work like Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lector and Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from “Blue Velvet.” Ledger’s work is dark, scary and funny, making it hard to imagine how any actor would want to try to follow in his footsteps if the Joker ever makes a return to the big screen.

Even before Ledger’s unexpected passing there was Oscar buzz, and that buzz has grown with his passing. The clamor is merited by Ledger’s performance, which is easily one of the best in any film I’ve seen this year.

Ledger’s performance alone is good enough to make “The Dark Knight” a very good movie, but fortunately this is a film with even more than that - making it the not just the best film of the summer, but one of the best films of the year.

DVD dandy of the week

This week’s dandy is “21” (B) - director Robert Luketic’s entertaining film full of flash and style that makes it one of the more entertaining Vegas films in recent memory.

“21” is loosely based on the novel “Bringing Down the House,” which chronicled the tale of six Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who were trained to become experts in card counting and then made millions during weekend trips to Las Vegas.

Jim Sturgess stars as Ben Campbell, an MIT student who has just been accepted into Harvard’s medical school but can’t find a way to pay for it.

He finds an answer to his problems when he is recruited by an MIT professor (Kevin Spacey) to join a group of students learning an elaborate system that gives them a distinct advantage when playing blackjack.

Before long, Ben finds himself emerged in a double life: a shy student during the week, but a big shot, high-stakes gambler on weekends.

Sturgess, who audiences probably remember from last year’s “Across the Universe,” continues to establish himself as a budding star with another confident and interesting performance.

Spacey gives his patented reliable performance, while Laurence Fishburne is very good as an old-school pit boss who catches onto the group’s excessive amount of success. It’s also nice to see Kate Bosworth, another student in the group who becomes Ben’s love interest.

Luketic gets the most out of his cast, but also gets the most out of a simplistic card game, amping up the card scenes with CGI effects and slow-mo techniques that only add to the tension.

“21” could have benefited from more insight into how these students got away with card counting and if it wanted to be a cautionary tale, I’m not sure if it really works. But that’s only a minor gripe for a film that just oozes coolness.

“21” is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content, including partial nudity, and is now available on DVD.

— Like Ben of “21,” Micheal Compton leads a double life: A shy sports reporter throughout the week, a no-nonsense movie critic every Thursday. To contact him on either front, e-mail mcompton@bgdailynews.com.

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