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Review: The Dark Knight Rises (Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight Rises (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
07.18.2012by: Eric Walkuski
8 10

John "The Arrow" Fallon's review of the film will be up tomorrow.

PLOT: Eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, Gotham City is once again under fire from a conscienceless villain, a terrorist named Bane who wants to throw the entire city's class system into disarray. Now Bruce Wayne, living in solitude and depression, must consider bringing Batman out of retirement to battle the evil onslaught.

REVIEW: Christopher Nolan's Batman movies are, of course, the “serious” superhero films; momentous and substantial in an unforgettable way for lovers of the genre, while dark, rich, and dramatic enough for the audience member who usually doesn't care about such things. Nolan not only approaches the source material with reverence, he injects significance into it with a ripped-from-reality weight that anyone who lives in this world can readily feel. With Gotham City and its complicated society – from the corruptible to the needy, the righteous to the monstrous - the director and his co-writer/brother Jonathan show us both the limitations and possibilities of the human race; sometimes we're capable of great evil, and sometimes we can overcome our own destructive tendencies to achieve heroism... Sometimes we just don't care how things turn out as long as we can save our own asses.

So yeah, not your average popcorn-munching summer blockbusters, these.

In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Nolan more than ever peppers his story with images, ideas and anxieties that are all too real, mounting an epic tale of terrorism and class warfare in which a city that revels in decadence is brought to its knees by a foreigner who hates everything it stands for. From out of the shadows comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a gigantic, brutish mercenary with the swagger of a wrestler and the eloquence of a dictator. He's arrived in Gotham (using various means that are almost to complicated to get into here) with the single-minded purpose of creating havoc within the social structure of the city; stripping its elite and political figures down to nothing while unleashing the jailed, the working class and the like-minded crazies to paint the town red with warfare. Not unlike The Joker (who goes completely unmentioned in this film), Bane wants to see this civilization tear itself apart... And he wants Batman to be front and center for the mayhem, needing the hero to be broken down with helplessness.

And helpless is what Batman feels, more accurately, what Bruce Wayne feels, as he's retired Batman and gone into Howard Hughes-esque exile in Wayne Manor. (Batman, you'll remember, has been blamed for the death of Harvey Dent, hence his presence is not exactly required by Gotham anyway.) Hobbled by old injuries, on the brink of losing his company and still feeling terribly wounded, not to mention guilty, over the death of Rachel Dawes, Wayne is shell of a man when we meet him. His loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine, wonderful as always) worries that Wayne is almost anxious for something bad to happen again, so he can get back into the swing of things... not necessarily as a hero, but as a man with a deathwish.

Obviously, with Bane's appearance, Wayne is galvanized into action, despite the fact that he's almost surely no match for the madman physically. He's going to need some help, and he finds it – maybe - in the very enticing form of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar with an eye toward having her past erased and, along the way, teaching the ruling class a thing or two. Selina savors it when the rich and powerful are humbled, and ripping them off is more than her pleasure. In Batman she encounters her conscience, the possibility of being more than just a thief. But that's hard to consider when you're always looking out for Number One.

Nolan, as always, proves he's an expert in juggling multiple storylines and characters (even if a handful of both are ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant). Once again the city is policed by Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) who, like Wayne, lives with the painful true details of Harvey Dent's death, but must go through the motions of eulogizing Dent's name while cursing Batman's. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, who is more than eager to help Bruce when he's ready to spring back into action; a few new toys are just what Batman needs, and Lucius has him covered. (Oh boy, how I do want “The Bat” for Christmas!) Marion Cotillard is a millionaire who could save the Wayne foundation from a treacherous boardmember named Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), as well as a potential love interest, if he can wade through his sadness long enough.

The most key supporting character, however, is John Blake (Joseph-Gordon-Levitt), an honest, determined cop who becomes Commissioner Gordon's right-hand man when Bane's plan of destroying Gotham kicks into gear. Blake is one of the last true believers in Batman, seeing through the lie that has sent him into exile, and his resolve is a major component to the unfolding saga.

Nolan and his editor Lee Smith keep all these plates spinning deftly; they're often prone to set into action multiple plot threads concurrently that they then weave between steadily and without effort. Two or three (sometimes more) different action/suspense scenes will be going on at once, and Nolan has no problem maintaining tautness in each of them, while also building to an intense crescendo where everything collides. You can often sense the exhale of the audience after a particularly unrelenting series of events.

He's a master storyteller, this is for sure, and he also loves things big. Nolan's strength as an action director isn't in fight scenes (most of the hand-to-hand combat is rather conventionally staged), it's in the chase; when Batman is chasing down a foe, be it on the ground or in the air, the adrenaline rush is palpable. Nolan lives for those IMAX moments where the whole street – or cityscape – is widening in front of you; scenes of pedestrian fisticuffs are trite for him. (I should mention that seeing this on an IMAX screen is quite glorious.)

The director is also not afraid to tweak you where you hurt. Several images will be powerfully disturbing, and not in a welcome way, to some viewers; when Bane starts cutting off Gotham by blowing up bridges and tunnels, more than a few shots hovering over what is clearly a smoky New York will provoke painful 9/11 memories. No doubt, that's exactly what Nolan is going for, but when a tunnel caves in and traps an entire squad of police officers inside who are then covered in dust and debris, the movie feels like it's button-pushing. I absolutely admire Nolan's insistence that these Batman movies be more than simple entertainment, but I'm not eager to have what are still raw wounds prodded either.

Bale is still the best Batman ever; the actor infuses Wayne with as much emotional turmoil as he ever has, and yet there's nothing over-dramatic about the performance. Bruce Wayne is a man who can't fully come to terms with his feelings, and Bale's face consistently expresses that inner war. A scene between Bale and Caine early on, where the latter tells the former he's not prepared to go on this new journey with him, is one of the trilogy's emotional highlights, as both actors are superb in it.

The new cast acquits themselves very well: Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again proves he's a leading man, his Blake often right in the middle of the action and the actor exuding genuine screen presence. Hathaway makes for a surprisingly enjoyable and sexy Selina (she's never specifically referred to as Catwoman); I'll admit that I was among the dubious when her casting was first announced, but she nails it. The actress makes Selina almost thoroughly unlikable sometimes, yet we're drawn to her because we believe, like Batman, there's a good person in there just waiting to be embraced.

Bane is a fearsome bastard, a fully bad guy whose intentions are neither noble nor justified, and Hardy is as good as anyone could possibly be in the role, factoring in the limitation caused by his mask and the muffled sound of his voice. His eyes light up in a few scenes in a really scary way, and toward the end they soften to hint at a smidgen of humanity beneath the intimidating exterior. He's undoubtedly a flat-out super-villain, which we haven't truly seen before in Nolan's Batman films.

And yet... it can't be helped but to admit that Bane is simply no Joker. Of course, no villain could reach those heights; I don't have to tell you that Heath Ledger's instant-classic of a psycho made THE DARK KNIGHT almost two times as good as it already was, and the fact that RISES doesn't have an antagonist as dynamic as him is evident throughout. Bane is the personification of idealistic terrorism, but Joker was chaos and anarchy, and the fact that he had no allegiance to anyone or anything other than destruction made him severely more horrifying. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a very good movie, filled with splendid performances and jaw-dropping moments, but it frankly can never reach the height of its predecessor, that Clown Prince of Crime seems to still have his way with Batman even now.

Extra Tidbit: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES opens on July 20th.

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