Few blockbusters have borne so heavy a burden of audience expectation as Christopher Nolan’s final Batman caper, and the filmmaker steps up to the occasion with a cataclysmic vision of Gotham City under siege in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Running an exhilarating, exhausting 164 minutes, Nolan’s trilogy-capping epic sends Batman to a literal pit of despair, restoring him to the core of a legend that questions, and powerfully affirms, the need for heroism in a fallen world. If it never quite matches the brilliance of 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” this hugely ambitious action-drama nonetheless retains the moral urgency and serious-minded pulp instincts that have made the Warners franchise a beacon of integrity in an increasingly comicbook-driven Hollywood universe. Global B.O. domination awaits.
Even without the bonus of 3D, a technology Nolan has resolutely avoided while continuing to shoot in 35mm and 70mm, “The Dark Knight Rises” should continue the writer-director’s commercial hot streak following “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” Pic’s B.O. reign will be sustained in part by repeat attendance and Imax ticket premiums; 72 minutes of the film (roughly 40%) were lensed using super-high-res Imax cameras, representing the most extensive and sophisticated use of the giantscreen format in a studio picture.
Once again writing with his brother Jonathan from a tale conceived with David S. Goyer, Nolan has more story obligations than usual this time around. The result is a nearly three-hour yarn that draws on key plot points from “The Dark Knight” before bringing the trilogy full circle, back to the origin story of “Batman Begins,” even as it ushers in a motley crew of villains and allies (not always easy to tell apart) inspired by Bob Kane’s original comics, and pushes the citizens of Gotham into new realms of terror and mayhem.
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Initially, at least, the city is enjoying a period of relative peace eight years after the disappearance of the outlawed vigilante known as Batman, presumed responsible for the death of beloved law-and-order figurehead Harvey Dent. Yet the deception continues to weigh heavily on Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Bruce Wayne himself (Christian Bale), now a shut-in who spends his nights slinking, Hamlet-like, about the parapets of Wayne Manor.
While the ever-loyal Alfred (Michael Caine) supplies one of the series’ emotional high points with a tender expression of love and concern for the man he’s known since boyhood, it takes the intervention of several new characters for Wayne to return to public life. Two formidable women court his attentions: first Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who’s spearheading an important clean-energy initiative, then Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a wily cat burglar who skillfully robs the billionaire playboy, and later has the nerve to upbraid him for his obscene fortune. There’s also John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a smart young cop who clings to his belief in Batman’s goodness, and turns out to share some of Wayne’s childhood traumas.
Yet the figure who decisively triggers Batman’s re-emergence is Bane (Tom Hardy), a vicious mercenary introduced seizing control of an aircraft mid-flight in a bravura opening sequence (Hans Bjerno handled the stunning aerial photography). Wearing a steel-trap-like gas mask to neutralize the pain of unspeakable wounds, this bald, hulking brute is a former member of the League of Shadows, the same “gang of psychopaths” that gave Wayne his own basic training. For this reason, Bane is also the franchise’s first major villain who turns out to be a physical match for Batman, something made brutally apparent in a pummeling scene of hand-to-hand, mask-to-mask combat.
The heavy artillery comes out just after the halfway point as Bane’s men take advantage of a well-attended football game to turn Gotham into a terrorist stronghold. There’s nothing particularly ingenious about their scheme (call it the Bane-ality of evil), which confronts audiences with the now-familiar spectacle of a city’s apocalyptic destruction. Yet it’s typical of Nolan’s approach that his evocation of mass chaos feels so trenchantly detailed, so attuned to the crisis’ human toll as glimpsed in the terrified faces of civilian onlookers.
As d.p. Wally Pfister’s camera scans the war-torn island metropolis, viewers see not just buildings but social structures collapsing; anarchy ensues as prisoners are released en masse, and various legal, political and financial chieftains are made to answer for their alleged crimes against the underclass. All in all, the picture impressively conveys a seething vision of urban anxiety that speaks to such issues as the greed and complacency of the 1%, the criminal neglect of the poor and oppressed, and above all the unsettling sense that no one and nothing is safe.
Nolan’s previous Batman picture tapped into a similar vein of post-9/11 distress. Yet while “The Dark Knight Rises” raises the dramatic stakes considerably, at least in terms of its potential body count, it doesn’t have its predecessor’s breathless sense of menace or its demonic showmanship, and with the exception of one audacious sleight-of-hand twist, the story can at times seem more complicated than intricate, especially in its reliance on portentous exposition and geographically far-flung flashbacks.
Perhaps inevitably, one also feels the absence of a villain as indelible as Heath Ledger’s Joker, although Hardy does make Bane a creature of distinct malevolence with his baroque speech patterns and rumbling bass tones, provoking a sort of lower-register duet when pitted against Batman’s own voice-distorted growl (the sound mix rendered their dialogue mostly if not entirely intelligible at the screening attended).
In a more gratifying development, the film reasserts the primacy of its title character and the general excellence of Bale’s performance, forcing Wayne to reckon once and for all with the alter ego he’s fashioned for himself and Gotham in the name of justice. If the point is that only a state of total desperation can push a person to greatness, Nolan movingly acknowledges the limits of lone-ranger justice, as Selina, Miranda, Gordon, Blake and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Wayne’s old friend and gadgets expert, come to play crucial and sometimes unexpected roles in the twisty drama.
Hardy, Gordon-Levitt and Cotillard, recruited for duty after their stints in “Inception,” are all on their game here, blending easily in a supporting cast anchored by old pros Caine, Oldman and Freeman. Perhaps the riskiest casting choice was that of Hathaway in the potentially problematic role of Selina/Catwoman, but although her kitty outfit reps a slightly more cartoonish touch than Nolan’s neo-noir aesthetic typically allows (if nowhere near as campy as those worn by Halle Berry and Michelle Pfeiffer), the versatile actress nails the sardonic, hard-edged tone necessary to make this morally ambiguous vixen a dynamic foil for the Caped Crusader.
Production designers Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh opt for a grittier, more working-class Gotham this time around, a fully inhabited city of rundown street corners, public-works offices, bombed-out bridges and fetid sewers. While Chicago served as a recognizable template in the earlier two pictures, the exterior city shots here were achieved in New York, Pittsburgh and especially Los Angeles, whose downtown serves as the backdrop for a thrilling Michael Mann-style street chase marked by the appearance of Wayne’s latest vessel, a jet-helicopter hybrid known simply as the Bat.
Lee Smith’s editing maintains tautness and energy over the estimable running time, and Hans Zimmer adds a few ivory-tickling grace notes to his magnificently brooding score, still one of the most striking and definitive elements of this altogether exemplary studio franchise.