The Dark Knight Rises

A truly grand finale raises Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy to the peak of big-screen comic book adaptations.

The real-world threats of terrorism, anarchy and economic instability make deep incursions into the cinematic comic book domain in The Dark Knight Rises. Big-time Hollywood filmmaking at its most massively accomplished, this last installment in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy makes everything in the rival Marvel universe look silly and childish. Entirely enveloping and at times unnerving, this ranks as the best of Nolan's trio, even if it lacks an element as unique as Heath Ledger's immortal turn in The Dark Knight. It's a blockbuster by any standard.

The director daringly pushes the credibility of a Gotham City besieged by nuclear-armed revolutionaries to such an extent that it momentarily seems absurd that a guy in a costume who refuses to kill people could show up to save the day. This is especially true because Nolan, probably more than any other filmmaker who has ever gotten seriously involved with a superhero character, has gone so far to unmask and debilitate such a figure. But he gets away with it and, unlike some interludes in the previous films, everything is lucid, to the point and on the mark, richly filling out (especially when seen in the Imax format) every moment of the 164-minute running time.

In a curtain-raiser James Bond would kill for, a CIA aircraft transporting terrorists is sensationally skyjacked by Bane (Tom Hardy), an intimidating hulk whose nose and mouth are encumbered by a grill-like metal mask that gives his voice an artificial quality not unlike that of Darth Vader. What Bane is up to is not entirely clear, but it can't be good.

Meanwhile, Batman and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) have been in suspiciously simultaneous seclusion, much to the consternation of loyal valet Alfred (Michael Caine), who accuses his boss of "just waiting for things to get bad again." They do, in a hurry.

Bruce is dragged back into the limelight by slinky Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a spirited cat burglar who pulls a job at his mansion. It was always a question how this feline character (never called Catwoman herein) would be worked into the fabric of this Batman series, but screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, working from a story by the director and David S. Goyer, have cannily threaded her through the tale as an alluring gadfly who engages in a game of one-upmanship with Batman.

Commandeering the city's sewers with his fellow mercenaries, Bane stages a brazen attack on the New York Stock Exchange, which has the dual effect of luring Batman out of hiding and bankrupting Bruce Wayne. Nolan thus boldly has rooted his film in arguably the two biggest worries of this age: terrorism and economic collapse. And the fact that Gotham City has, for the first time, realistically used New York City for most of its urban locations adds to the topical resonance. Nolan has always been a very serious, even remorseless filmmaker, and never more so than he is here.

Bane reverses the social order of Gotham City: 1,000 dangerous criminals are released from prison, the rich are tossed out of their homes, and a "people's court" (presided over by Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow) dispenses death sentences willy-nilly. With practically all bridges and tunnels destroyed, no one can leave the island, which is threatened by a fusion device initially developed by Bruce and tech genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) as a clean energy source but now transformed into a nuke, which Bane promises to use.

Some of the action scenes, such as chases involving the armed motorcycle Bat-Pod and the cool new chopperlike aircraft called The Bat that zooms through the city's caverns like something out of early Star Wars, have a familiar feel. But the opening skyjacking, the Stock Exchange melee and especially the multiple explosions that bring the city to its knees are fresh and brilliantly rendered. The film reportedly cost $250 million, but it would be easy to believe the figure was quite a bit more, so elaborate is the production.

That the money has been put toward making the dramatic events feel so realistic -- there's not a hint of cheesiness or the cartoonlike -- ratchets up the suspense and pervasive feeling of unease. One knows going in that this film marks the end of Batman, at least as rendered by Bale and Nolan, but for the first time there is a sense it could also really be the end for Batman, that he might be sacrificed, or sacrifice himself, for the greater good.

Needing to portray both of his characters as vulnerable, even perishable, Bale is at his series best. At times in the past his voice seemed too artificially deepened; there's a bit of that here but far less, and, as Bruce becomes impoverished and Batman incapacitated, the actor's nuances increase. Caine has a couple of surprisingly emotional scenes and handles them with lovely restraint, while returnees Gary Oldman and Freeman deliver as expected.

Hathaway invests her catlike woman with verve and impudence, and Marion Cotillard (as the wealthy Miranda Tate) is a warm and welcome addition to this often-forbidding world.

As before, the production values are opulent; nothing short of the highest praise can be lavished on the work of production designers Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh, cinematographer Wally Pfister, costume designer Lindy Hemming, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, editor Lee Smith, composer Hans Zimmer and sound designer Richard King, just for starters.

Nearly half the film, including all of the big action scenes, was shot with large-format Imax cameras and, with both versions having been previewed, the 70mm Imax presentation to be shown in 102 locations worldwide is markedly more powerful as a dramatic experience; the normal 35mm prints, while beautiful, are somewhat less sharp.

Despite the advanced technology deployed to make Dark Knight Rises everything it is, Nolan remains proudly and defiantly old-school when it comes to his filmmaking aesthetic, an approach indicated in a note at the end of the long final credits: "This motion picture was shot and finished on film."

Release date: Friday, July 20 (Warner Bros.)
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy
Director: Christopher Nolan Rated PG-13, 164 minutes