Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: "The Dark Knight Rises"

And so the Batman saga ends, not with a bang but an allegory. Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan has made it clear "The Dark Knight Rises" will be the last movie about the caped crusader -- at least that he will make -- and this knowledge seems to have freed him to make a superhero movie that's different from any other in the genre, one in which the superhero has grown tired of the mask and has to be convinced to put it on again.

It's notable that Christian Bale spends far more screen time out of the Batman costume than in.

It's a big, epic, sprawling movie that, like the last entry four years ago, is too overstuffed with tertiary plot lines and secondary characters for its own good.

And, of course, nothing can replace Heath Ledger's unique, disturbing presence as the Joker. Even though he was captured at the end of the last movie, and at one point Gotham City's prison is busted open for all the criminals to escape, there's no half-hearted (and misguided) attempt to cast another actor in that now-iconic role.

As the story opens, eight years have passed since the events in "The Dark Knight." Wayne has not donned Batman's cowl since then, with the populace mistakenly believing that he killed Harvey Dent, who actually went mad and became Two-Face. Dent has become a symbol of the peaceful good times that have endured since -- thanks in part to some draconian laws put in place in Dent's name.

When we first see Bruce Wayne, he seems to have aged 20 years. He has graying hair and a lined face, and walks around with a cane and a severe limp. He's become a recluse, rarely leaving his mansion despite the urging of loyal butler/henchman Alfred (Michael Caine) to do so. You quit being Batman, Alfred tells him, but you didn't start a new life.

The villain here is Bane, played by Tom Hardy underneath a strange metal mask of tubes and 30 pounds of muscle he put on for the role. Bane is a brilliant terrorist who's utterly unnerving, but whose motives never really come into clear relief. He emerges from a mysterious past, supposedly growing up in darkness inside a pit of a prison, and seems to have dedicated his entire life to destroying Batman and the city he loves. Why? We're never really sure.

When Bane first appears on the scene, Bruce resolves to get back in the game. He is cocky and confident in his gadgets and combat abilities, despite a doctor's assessment that he has no cartilage in his knees and scarred internal organs. He shouldn't even be skiing, let alone tangling with super-strong madmen.

Bane easily defeats Batman in personal combat and exiles him. Bane then steals something really, really powerful that belongs to Bruce Wayne and turns it against Gotham. And then he ... waits five months to unleash the destruction. Which just happens to be enough time for Bruce to convalesce and return to foil his plans.

Hardy makes a few bold performance choices, some of which pay off and some don't. Much has been made about his voice, which can be difficult to understand behind the metallic echo of his mask, which resembles a shark's maw coming at  you. Beyond the comprehension issues, Bane speaks in an oddly-inflected pattern with a stiff sort of formality to it. He also has a habit of placing his hands on the lapels of his coat or armor, like a Dickensian barrister puffing himself up.

The other big addition is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, a slyly seductive jewel thief who tries to walk a risky line between loyalty to Bane and Batman. Neither really trusts her, or her either of them, but there's a connection between her and Bruce Wayne. He represents the 1% and she makes Occupy Wall Street-ish threats about "a storm coming" to wash away the privileged, which supplies an edge to their banter.

I should mention that no one ever actually calls her Catwoman, and she doesn't wear a costume, other than some minimalist sartorial adornment. It's a surprisingly beefier role than you'd expect, and Hathaway has a strong presence in it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another important new character as young police detective John Blake -- or, at least, seemingly important. Blake seems to be everywhere during the movie, popping up to assist Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) with a key bit of evidence or even fight alongside Batman. But after the movie I started thinking about what purpose Blake plays in the story, and decided he's really not that pivotal at all, except for that part at the end where ... well, you'll see.

Matthew Modine is another new add as Gordon's right-hand man, Ben Mendelsohn plays a mercenary-minded industrialist making a play for Wayne Enterprises, and Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a former business partner of Wayne's who got burned on a bad business deal.

Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce Wayne's R&D man, returns to the fold, and apparently has spare Batman suits and gear stuffed in just about every corner of Gotham. Most notably is a flying machine that's part helicopter, part jet and all seriously badass.

I saw this film in a genuine IMAX theater at the Indiana State Museum. More than an hour of the 165-minute film was shot on special IMAX film, and when that entire picture opens up from widescreen to a massive six-story wall of spectacle, it's quite tremendous. This one is definitely worth the ticket upsell.

"The Dark Knight Rises" isn't as good as the last film, but I wouldn't call it a disappointment. If anything, its faults arise from being too ambitious, too big and too much. A shorter film that focused on the dynamic between Batman, Bane and Selina Kyle might've been a better fit for this material. But that's the sort of movie you make when you're starting out something big, not wrapping it up.

3 stars out of four

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