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Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
As the villainous Bane (played with cold menace and humorless presence by Tom Hardy) and his minions storm into Gotham City's Stock Exchange building and empty rounds into scared, cowering suit-and-tie-clad yuppies, it's important to keep repeating to one's self: "It's only a summer blockbuster. It's only a summer blockbuster. It's only a summer blockbuster...."
Welcome to Hell, the major studio tentpole edition. Coming off the lighthearted playfulness of director Joss Whedon's The Avengers and filmmaker Marc Webb's subtly Twilight-tinged The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter in Christopher Nolan's epic Batman trilogy, looks, feels, and attacks like a horror movie aimed at Wall Street and all of the One Percenters out there. Just as 2008's The Dark Knight posited our country's fears of terrorism under Heath Ledger's Joker's insanity, The Dark Knight Rises takes aim at the have-plenties through the homicidal scope of Bane and his plan to empower the have-nots. There's a "People's Court," in which Gotham's most powerful citizens are forced to choose "death or exile," the latter option leading them to try and leave town by hopelessly walking across the river on flimsy ice. Again, while watching Nolan's incredibly dark franchise-closer, remember, "It's only a summer blockbuster."
The fact that, once again, Nolan and his partners in brainy popcorn cinema, his co-writing brother Jonathan Nolan and fellow co-writer David S. Goyer, have turned a bankable, should-be-accessible superhero flick into a challenging work marked by cerebral cat-and-mouse games, unpleasant social commentary, and underlying evil is deserving of endless praise. Thus, Nolan's decision to stop making Batman films is a rather disheartening one, especially when, it's sad to report, The Dark Knight Rises ultimately falls short of sheer greatness, providing sufficient closure in light of its inability to trump Nolan's prior Batman efforts in all-encompassing quality.
Clocking in at a whopping 165 minutes, the heaviest Dark Knight movie yet is filled to the brim with rich characters and twisty storytelling, but the creators here aren't completely able to pull it all together. Whereas the 2005 series opener, Batman Begins, effectively balanced origin story requirements with intelligent characterization and satisfying action, and The Dark Knight rollicked along with a towering villain and an airtight script, The Dark Knight Rises offers a slew of jaw-dropping sequences and a ridiculously ambitious plot, but also a marginally clunkier script than the two previous films.
The Dark Knight Rises is a legitimate knockout of a motion picture, flaws and all. Nolan's predominantly bleak film is too far-reaching in its scope, and too masterfully crafted in its technical pursuits, to be rendered a disappointment.
It's important to make one point absolutely clear at this juncture, though: The Dark Knight Rises is a legitimate knockout of a motion picture, flaws and all. Even though it frustratingly pales in comparison alongside The Dark Knight, Nolan's predominantly bleak film is too far-reaching in its scope, and too masterfully crafted in its technical pursuits, to be rendered a disappointment. No one else in Hollywood, or any overseas markets, for that matter, makes the kind of audience-respecting and fearlessly massive sensory overloads that Nolan does, and The Dark Knight Rises is easily his biggest one yet.
If the lack of actual Batman mentions thus far seems glaring, it's worth noting that The Dark Knight Rises is strangely frugal with its Caped Crusader scenes; after showing up for the first time over an hour into the film, the titular hero only reappears in costume three more times, and one of those times he's turned into a pointy-eared punching bag. Overall, it's the Bruce Wayne show, and Christian Bale gives his best performance as the orphaned billionaire yet.
Eight years removed from the events seen in The Dark Knight, Bruce is now a recluse hiding out on the top floor of his mansion, walking around with a cane and growing unkempt facial hair. The rest of Gotham's elite still party in his manor, however, and it's at one particular shindig that the sneaky Selina Kyle (a radiant and charismatic Anne Hathaway, the film's undisputed MVP) infiltrates in order to swipe Bruce's mother's pearl necklace. Really, though, she's been hired to get his fingerprints, for an employer who'll remain anonymous here, in light of spoilers.
Just know that the cunning Ms. Kyle, whose propensity for wearing a skintight black latex suit while cat-burgling has afforded her the moniker "Catwoman," is an allegiance-shifting pawn in a much larger scheme, one whose anti-Gotham roots trace all the way back to Batman Begins, the previous Bat-flick most crucial for unspooling The Dark Knight Rises. And in that connection, Nolan's true trilogy intentions are clearly apparent, interweaving subplots and mythologies introduced in its predecessors into this film's conclusive, end-all-be-all look at an emotionally tormented hero's struggles with his role in Gotham's turmoil.
At the helm of the city's escalating destruction is the aforementioned Bane, a diesel mercenary sporting a crab-like, mouth-concealing mask (which he uses to keep fear out) who speaks like A Clockwork Orange's main droog Alex in a Darth Vader mask and carries out an elaborately conceived plot to trap Gotham's residents and force them to adhere to his sadistic form of governmental rule. Absolutely ripped, he's powerful enough to lay waste to anyone in his path; also brilliant, he's able to orchestrate the kidnapping of a Russian nuclear physicist in mid-air by transporting his captive from a crumbling airplane to a fully functional one (in the film's magnificent opening scene, an exercise in unbelievable virtuosity from Mr. Nolan).
In addition to Bane, The Dark Knight Rises welcomes several newbies into Batman's world, including do-good cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose performance is thoroughly strong), an admirable officer who shares Bruce Wayne's boys' home background and possesses an unflappable degree of faith in Batman. Also fresh to the party is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a businesswoman who earns a spot on the Wayne Enterprises board and shows interest in overseeing the company's clean-energy project. In Gordon-Levitt's Blake, Nolan's Batman universe has an all-important beacon of non-costume heroism, a guy who's more than able to make Commissioner Gordon's (Gary Oldman) job slightly easier and work his way into that "white knight" role Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) so desperately wanted to fill, and Gordon-Levitt handles the boy scout assignment with sympathetic, very likable aplomb.
Tate, on the other hand, leads to one of the film's major problems: She's the love interest for Bruce Wayne that The Dark Knight Rises doesn't need. During the first act, she's a hole-filler meant to absolve Bruce's pain in the wake of Rachel Dawes' (Maggie Gyllenhaal) death in The Dark Knight, but the script barely establishes an attraction between Miranda and Bruce before they're smooching beneath the sheets. It's Christopher Nolan who's in question here, though, so the character isn't just some throwaway romantic diversion; in the end, Cotillard has more to do than just look pretty, and the Academy Award-winning actress definitely rises to the occasion, yet, once The Dark Knight Rises ends, her character's whole bedfellow arc feels manipulative. And that's all that'll be said. Here, at least.
Suffering a similar fate is Bane, a largely formidable bad guy who's never able to match the domineering presence of The Dark Knight's Joker but, nevertheless, mesmerizes with his oddness. Save for a few moments of eye-driven emoting, Hardy's performance is totally muscular, frequently chilling the mood with his broad-shouldered walk, two hands curiously gripping his leather coat's collars, and says things like "[I'll] eat their souls" with an unwaveringly cool and calm disposition. Using his face mask as a sort of megaphone, Bane gives dictatorial monologues to Gotham's scared, shell-shocked inhabitants, preaching about his agenda as their "instrument of liberation" while secretly aiming to blow them all to smithereens.
In that, Bane is actually a far more threatening nemesis for Batman than Joker, whose carefree nihilism suggested a waking nightmare; Bane, however, wants to kill people in their sleep. Which is why his unfortunately overshadowed final moments on-screen are such a letdown. Throughout The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy's impressive work is utilized for paralytic terror; but in the end, he's shortchanged.
Yet, again, Nolan is too gifted a filmmaker to let a few narrative slip-ups spoil his fun. There may be no better shotcaller working in Hollywood when it comes to eye-popping action, and The Dark Knight Rises has that in bulk. Save for a painfully heavy-handed decision to kick off the mayhem with a kid singing the "The Star Spangled Banner" (as heard in one of the trailers), Bane's devastation of Gotham City, during which he blows up a football stadium, decimates all outward-bound bridges, and sets off miniature bombs on the city's streets, is one undeniably tremendous set-piece. One that, staged with direness and an alarming sadism, leaves the NYC-set finale of The Avengers looking like an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
As one would expect from the guy who made in-depth character studies like Memento and The Prestige, though, Nolan isn't an action first/substance second kind of dude. With The Dark Knight Rises, he's undoubtedly most concerned with tying his Gotham City saga together through Bruce Wayne's redemption, and, in that respect, the film is abundantly pleasing. Just as Batman Begins was dedicated more to Bruce Wayne than his caped alter-ego, the director's third installment sets out to conclude his story, even if it means leaving the actual Dark Knight on the sidelines; frankly, it's easy to forget that one's watching a Batman movie most of the time. But once the costume gets put back for the film's show-stopping final 45 minutes, Nolan's ambition to give the die-hard, wait-in-line-for-hours-to-buy-tickets fans an all-out spectacle of a conclusion is phenomenally endearing, and it's made all the more impactful thanks to the director's excellence behind the camera.
If this truly is Christopher Nolan's final trip to Gotham City, he should be endlessly commended for putting it all on the line. Rather than play it safe, the undisputed blockbuster champ closed the series' doors with its darkest, meanest, and most grandiose entry; in trying to do so damn much, he also happened to jumble a few story elements along the way. Well, as they say, shit happens. Imperfect superiority is always a welcome substitute for flawlessness. Besides, fans who are typically spoon-fed brainless spectacles during the summer months deserve someone who's unafraid to stumble while climbing a cinematic mountain, not a filmmaker who'll lazily sidestep the smallest of hills. Nolan is that rare ascender, and The Dark Knight Rises is his, as well as superhero cinema's, Kilimanjaro. Bask in how he scales it.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)