The Dark Knight Rises: Film Review

Dark Knight Rises Batman Looking up - H 2012
Ron Phillips/Warner Bros. Pictures

Dark Knight Rises Batman Looking up - H 2012

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

Christopher Nolan's Batman finale stars Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and features performances from series newcomers Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The real world threats of terrorism, political 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 of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy makes everything in the rival Marvel universe look thoroughly silly and childish. Entirely enveloping and at times unnerving in a relevant way one would never have imagined, as a cohesive whole this ranks as the best of Nolan's trio, even if it lacks -- how could it not? -- an element as unique as Heath Ledger's immortal turn in The Dark Knight. It's a blockbuster by any standard.

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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 conceivably show up to save the day. This is especially true since Nolan, probably more than any other filmmaker who's 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 here 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 hijacked in midair by Bane (Tom Hardy), an intimidating hulk whose nose and mouth are encumbered by a tubular, grill-like metal mask which 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.

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Although it's only been four years since the last Batman film, eight years of dramatic time have elapsed since the climactic events depicted in The Dark Knight. Batman and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) have been in suspiciously simultaneous total seclusion, much to the consternation of loyal valet Alfred (Michael Caine), who, upbraiding his boss for inaction, accuses him of “just waiting for things to get bad again.” They do, in a hurry. But in the interim, Gotham has scarcely missed him, as he's publicly blamed for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent and hasn't needed him anyway since organized crime has virtually disappeared.

Bruce begins being dragged back into the limelight by slinky Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a spirited cat burglar who lifts his fingerprints and a necklace from his safe while pulling a job at his mansion. It was always a question how this ambiguous feline character (never called Catwoman herein) would be worked into the fabric of this Batman series, but co-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 and tease who engages in an ongoing game of one-upmanship with Batman and whose selfishness prevents her from making anything beyond opportunistic alliances.

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Commandeering the city's sewers with his fellow mercenaries, Bane begins his onslaught, first with an attempted kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), then with a brazen attack on the Stock Exchange, which, at the film's 45-minute mark, has the double effect of luring Batman out of hiding and bankrupting Bruce Wayne. The latter catastrophe forces the fallen tycoon to ask wealthy, amorously inclined board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to assume control of his company to squeeze out Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), who's in cahoots with Bane.

Nolan has thus boldly rooted his film in what are arguably the two big worries of the age, terrorism and economic collapse, the result of which can only be chaos. So when virtually the entire Gotham police force is lured underground to try to flush out Bane, the latter has the lawmen just where he wants them, trapped like animals in a pen waiting for slaughter. And the fact that Gotham City has, for the first time, realistically used New York City for most of its urban locations merely adds to the topical resonance of Bane's brilliantly engineered plot, in which he eventually takes the entire population of Manhattan hostage. Nolan has always been a very serious, even remorseless filmmaker, and never more so than he is here.

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Inducing Selina to take him to Bane, Batman gets more than he bargained for; physically, he's no match for the mountainously muscled warrior, who sends the legendary crime fighter off to a literal hellhole of a prison, with the parting promise of reducing Gotham to ashes. Seemingly located in the Middle East, the dungeon resembles a huge well and has been escaped from only once, by none other than Bane, who is said to have been born there and got out as a child.

Here, as elsewhere, there are complex ties leading back to the comic books that link characters and motivations together; with Bruce and Bane, it is with the League of Shadows, which occasions the brief return of Liam Neeson's Ra's Al Ghul, last seen in Batman Begins (in 2005). A solid new character, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's resourceful street cop John Blake, is a grateful product of one of the Wayne Foundation's orphanages. Many of the characters wear masks, either literal or figurative; provocatively, Batman's mask hides his entire face except for his mouth, the very part of Bane which is covered. This is just one of the motifs the Nolans have used to ingeniously plot out the resolution to their three-part saga, which involves at least one major, superbly hidden surprise.

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While Bruce Wayne languishes in the pit rebuilding his strength for an escape attempt, Bane spectacularly and mercilessly reverses the entire social order of Gotham City: 1,000 dangerous criminals are released from prison, the rich are tossed out of their uptown homes, the remaining police hide out like rats underground, and a “people's court” (presided over by Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow) dispenses death sentences willy-nilly. With virtually all bridges and tunnels destroyed, no one can leave the island, which is threatened by a fusion device, initially developed by Bruce and his longtime tech genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) as a clean energy source but now transformed at Bane's behest into a nuke, which he promises to use.

Some of the action scenes, such as multiple chases involving the armed motorcycle Bat-Pod (mostly ridden by Selina) and the cool new one-man jet chopper-like aircraft called The Bat that zooms through the city's caverns like something out of the early Star Wars, have something of a familiar feel. But the opening skyjacking, the Stock Exchange melee and especially the multiple explosions that bring the city to its knees -- underground, on bridges and, most strikingly, in a football stadium -- are fresh and brilliantly rendered, as are all the other effects. The film reportedly cost $250 million, but it would be easy to believe that the figure was quite a bit more, so elaborate is everything about the production.

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But the fact that all the money has been put to the use of making the severe 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 will mark the end of Batman, at least for now and as rendered by Bale and Nolan, but for the first time there is the sense that 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 his characters as vulnerable, even perishable, Bale is at his series best in this film. At times in the past his voice seemed too artificially deepened and transformed; 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 to play and handles them with lovely restraint, while other returnees Oldman and Freeman deliver as expected.

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Bane is a fearsome figure, fascinating in his physicality and blithely confident approach to amoral anarchy. With the mask strapped to his head at all times and his voice altered, Hardy is obliged to express himself mostly through body language, which he does powerfully, and at a couple of key moments his eyes speak volumes. All the same, the facial and verbal restrictions provide emotive limitations, and his final moments onscreen feel almost thrown away; one feels a bit cheated of a proper sendoff.

Hathaway invests her catlike woman with verve and impudence, while Cotillard is a warm and welcome addition to this often forbidding world. Even though Nolan and Bale have made it clear that The Dark Knight Rises marks their farewell to Bruce Wayne and Batman, the final shot clearly indicates the direction a follow-up offshoot series by Warner Bros. likely will take.

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As before, the production values are opulent and sensational; nothing short of the highest praise can be lavished on the work of production designers Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh, cinematogtapher 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.

The only conspicuous faux pas is a big continuity gaffe that has the raid on the Stock Exchange take place during the day but the subsequent getaway chase unfold at night.

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

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Despite all the advanced technology deployed to make The Dark Knight Rises everything it is, Nolan remains proudly and defiantly old school (as only the most successful directors can get away with being these days) 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.”

Opens: Friday, July 20 (Warner Bros.)

Production: Syncopy

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Ben Mendelsohn, Burn Gorman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Juno Temple, Daniel Sunjata, Chris Ellis, Tom Conti, Nestor Carbonell, Brett Cullen, Aidan Gillen, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan; story by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer; based on characters created by Bob Kane

Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven

Executive producers: Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Kevin De La Noy, Thomas Tull

Director of photography: Wally Pfister

Production designers: Nathan Crowley, Kevin Kavanaugh

Costume designer: Lindy Hemming

Editor: Lee Smith

Music: Hans Zimmer

Visual effects supervisor: Paul Franklin

Special effects supervisor: Chris Corbould

Rated PG-13, 164 minutes