Sunday, July 29, 2012

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ an Imperfect but Triumphant End to Nolan’s Trilogy

Although director Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman epic The Dark Knight was met with near-universal acclaim, reactions to its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, have been relatively muted to say the least. Perhaps it’s the sobering realization that Nolan’s vision of Gotham City has come to an end, or maybe it’s the fact that it’s now seemingly impossible to speak of this film without bringing to mind the terrible tragedy that occurred during a midnight screening in Colorado. Or we could all be coming to grips with the notion that The Dark Knight Rises—as good as it is—never quite lives up to its much-lauded predecessor.

Having said that, I don’t honestly think there was any way that Nolan and his crew, after four years of feverish anticipation from fans around the globe, could have possibly delivered a film that would live up to the hype. Let’s just be glad that Nolan clearly made the film he wanted to make in the third and final installment of his Batman franchise without having to deal with the studio meddling and last-minute directives that muddled other third films such as Spider-Man 3  and X-Men: The Last Stand. Nolan concluded his Batman trilogy on his own terms, and regardless of how Warner Bros. aims to revive or reboot this franchise in the years ahead, Nolan’s take on the Caped Crusader remains intact throughout this film’s lengthy 165-minute running time.

Since we’re all increasingly sensitive about spoilers these days—and rightfully so—I’ll refrain from recapping the entire plot. Essentially, the film opens eight years after The Dark Knight and Gotham is a very different place. Organized crime is virtually nonexistent thanks to the Harvey Dent Act, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired as Batman and has become somewhat of a recluse while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is free to spend a great deal of time combing his luxurious mustache. However, as we soon learn, there’s a new villain in town named Bane (Tom Hardy), who has some sinister plans in store for dear old Gotham that will force Batman out of retirement. And, as the Joker might say if he were around for this installment, “It’s all a part of the plan.”

And what a plan it is! Fortunately, Batman and Gordon are aided in their fight against Bane and his minions by brilliant tech-savvy Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) his stalwart butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and the intuitive Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who, like Wayne, was orphaned as a child. Complicating matters for our hero is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a seductive cat burglar who slinks into Bruce’s life during a lavish dinner party and—true to form—doesn’t leave the compound empty handed (or, in her case, clawed). 

The Dark Knight Rises is a crowded film, yet one never gets the sense that Nolan is overwhelmed in dealing with such a large ensemble cast. Gordon-Levitt shines as Gordon’s stalwart, incorruptible ally in the fight against crime, while Caine and Freeman continue to keep our masked hero grounded in reality even as he races through the skies of Gotham in an aerial assault vehicle code-named “The Bat.” Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from Ms. Hathaway as Selina/Catwoman, who gives even Batman Returns alumnus Michelle Pfeiffer a run for her catnip.

When we first meet Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, we see a man defeated, older, hobbled and essentially a shadow of his former already-shadowy self.  After taking the rap for the late Harvey Dent’s sadistic actions in The Dark Knight, the Batman has vanished while Bruce has locked himself away in his palatial manor. Think Howard Hughes with shorter fingernails. When he’s spurred into action and returns to the streets as Batman, we see a transition in Bruce that is instantly reminiscent of the character’s post-retirement resurrection in Frank Miller’s 1986 mini-series The Dark Knight Returns. Bale conveys this transformation incredibly well, even though he still sees fit to give Batman’s voice the same time of gravel-throated intonation that would make Cookie Monster blush.

But our hero is only as good as his adversary, so let’s talk Bane. Making waves among the comic book community in the 1993-1994 Knightfall story arc for “breaking” Batman, Bane is among the Dark Knight’s most feared foes, and with good reason. On screen, he’s a wholly different antagonist than this series’ previous primary baddies—Batman Begins’ Scarecrow and The Dark Knight’s Joker—and it’s fitting that Nolan saved Bane for last. The character, who speaks in a bizarre accent muffled by a mask, had the potential to come across as goofy (which is exactly how he was portrayed in Joel Schumacher’s 1997 farce Batman & Robin), but Hardy and Nolan injected Bane with the appropriate menace.

The film is relatively light on action, featuring a couple of chase sequences and some brutal close-quarters combat between Batman and Bane, but Nolan’s economical approach to set pieces results in a slow burn of a film that relies more on escalating tension than dazzling spectacle. However, there are some awe-inspiring city shots captured with IMAX cameras that more than warrant a viewing on an IMAX screen. 

The Dark Knight Rises unfortunately, isn’t a perfect conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There are a few gaping plot holes that I won’t get into here, and the film has a tendency to drag in the middle act as it sets up a conclusion that is telegraphed just a tad too blatantly. Yet, I can’t help but find myself continuing to dwell on the many aspects of the film that I flat-out loved. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t quite as good as The Dark Knight, but it comes damn close.

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