Review: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Proves Too Big, Bold and Brilliant To Fail
The Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect film. Let's get that out of the way right at the beginning. It might not even be the best of Christopher Nolan's now complete Batman trilogy. It is poorly paced, slowing to an almost ponderous crawl during its rambling middle section, and battles frequently to convey any discernible structure. Despite its best efforts to keep things grounded firmly in the real world, it lets itself drift into a realm of campiness that the series has for the most part successfully steered clear of until now. It also suffers from the all too common superhero threequel fate of packing too many characters into its narrative, and as a result, leaves more than one key player floundering by the wayside, or at the very least, lacking much substance.
With all that in mind, I have no reservations with proclaiming The Dark Knight Rises a rip-roaring spectacle that manages not only to entrance and entertain as a stand-alone summer blockbuster, but also to connect firmly to its predecessors, carry its narrative forward with confidence and conviction, towards a bold, triumphant and incredibly ballsy conclusion that I defy any fan of the Caped Crusader to be anything but wholly satisfied with. Within the realms of earthbound reality, and considering the impossible weight of expectation levied upon everybody involved from Nolan on down, The Dark Knight Rises delivers the best possible ending any of us could have realistically expected.
Taking place eight years after the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the persecution of the Batman, Gotham City is relatively at peace with itself. The Dent Act has put more than 1000 gangsters and criminals behind bars, making the streets safe again and causing the wealthy to drop their guard. This allows the likes of opportunistic cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) to waltz right into the reconstructed Wayne Manor and pinch a string of pearls belonging to Bruce Wayne's dead mother. Not only that, she also lifts a set of the reclusive Mr. Wayne's fingerprints, which she intends to sell, only for the deal to sour and Selina to find herself in way over her head.
It is Kyle's actions that force Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) out into the open for the first time in years, only to discover his empire is on the brink of collapse since he halted the development of a controversial fusion generator. While it would have produced enough clean energy to power the entire city, the discovery that it could be converted into a nuclear device saw the project shelved. But this is precisely what brings the mysterious masked mercenary known as Bane (Tom Hardy) to town, with a kidnapped nuclear scientist reluctantly in tow. With a police force neutered into complacency by the lack of challenging crime to fight, Bane and his minions march into Gotham pretty much unnoticed, until Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) follows the wrong goon down the wrong sewer and comes face to face with an underground army under the leadership of this hulking, muzzled rottweiler of a villain.
There's plenty of set-up in the opening half an hour of Nolan's incredibly long film, without even mentioning clean energy crusader Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), or earnest yet embittered rookie cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Act 1 builds towards a weak and out-of-shape Bruce clashing heads with an understandably concerned Alfred (Michael Caine on top form), when he makes the decision to don the cape and cowl once more. From the moment Bane sets foot in the Gotham Stock Exchange the action lets rip, while the film's political sensibilities are laid out in plain sight. The villains are essentially us, the 99% looking to take the wealth and power of the rich and put it in the hands of the people. While there's never been any doubt Wayne was a one-percenter, born into privilege he didn't earn and arguably doesn't deserve, we have always sided with him until now because he fights to protect the masses as Batman. But even he has always conceded that the people deserve someone better, even when we sometimes need someone as cold-hearted and amoral as he can be.
Bane and Catwoman (who thankfully never team up to work together as they might well have in previous incarnations), are clearly representing the Occupy Wall Streeters of the 99%, albeit in a significantly more confrontational and gun-toting manner. Nolan and his screenwriting partner, brother Jonathan, are clearly labelling their villains as anarchists and terrorists, rather than pragmatic socialists. Sure this makes them easier to side against in the movie, but it leaves its audience flailing as to whom to ally with. Sure, we're gonna back the Bat, because - he's Batman, but at a time when the media is signalling them out as the cause of all our financial woes, never has this contradiction been made more apparent. But whatever the film's socio-political agenda, what the The Dark Knight Rises does well is give the story the structure and pacing of its comic book origins. It is an ongoing, ever-evolving - some might even say rambling - narrative, that fades characters and story threads in and out to the point there is no clear cut central protagonist or story arc.
Bruce Wayne should be the obvious choice as hero of the film, but he sits idly by for much of the first act, only to spend large parts of the film's second half...let's just say incapacitated, although ironically it is only then that his journey and struggle really become the central focus of the film. Christian Bale has done a great job with the character over the three films, understanding the nature of layers and masks and fake projected personalities better than any other actor to have taken on the role. In The Dark Knight Rises, he gives his best incarnation of Wayne yet - beaten, broken, defeated, yet still haunted by the fearless urge to go out there and fight, even if his compulsion to act on it has left him in the early stages of this tale.
There has been plenty of speculation surrounding Joseph Gordon Levitt's character of John Blake - a young patrolman who doesn't seem to fit into any of the high profile character slots within the Batman universe. His character is earnest, yet tortured, inspired by his own feelings of loss and injustice, much like Batman is, and these are talents that are soon recognised by Commissioner Gordon who takes him under his wing. When the crime rates in the city appear to have bottomed out, Blake seems to be the only cop in town still asking questions and looking to solve the riddle of why homeless people are opting to live in the sewers rather than on the streets - only to keep turning up dead. For long parts of the film, Blake is our primary focus. He is our hero on the front line, he has the powerful back-story driving him forward, he is slowing piecing together what awaits Gotham and who to turn to for help. Blake's is certainly the most rounded and satisfying story in the film.
I don't understand people's dislike for Anne Hathaway. She is an attractive and versatile performer who has always shown intelligence and talent onscreen. Catwoman (incidentally, a moniker that is never used in this film) is also a maligned figure in Batman's rogues' gallery, but one of which I have also always been rather fond. Perhaps it is simply the fetishistic quality of a powerful, sexy woman who repeatedly proves capable of out-witting and out-running our hero, perhaps it's just the costume. Whichever, I was excited to hear she would be included and pleased with Hathaway's casting. It proves well-founded. While Bane is out levelling the city in the name of a new economic dawn, Catwoman is only out for herself, looking to finance the lifestyle she desires any way she can. Selina Kyle is a survivor, who shows clear contempt for Bruce Wayne, but as Catwoman and Batman begin to cross paths time and again, there is an undeniable attraction between the two and before long, both are expressing their wishes for the other to come with them and form a partnership. If it wasn't for Bane...
Who in their right mind would have picked Bane as the villain to follow Heath Ledger's Joker in this Batman trilogy? While he does feature prominently in Knightfall, one of the best comic book arcs, there isn't much to him as a personality, and the vile stench of Jeep Swenson's inflatable monosyllabic incarnation in the detestable Batman & Robin was perhaps an insurmountable hurdle for many. But for my money, what Nolan and actor Tom Hardy do with Bane is the crowning achievement of The Dark Knight Rises. They create a real character, a real villain. Bane is a beast of a man, "born in hell" and raised in the darkness, who is driven not only by a political agenda, but also by vengeance. His associations with The League of Shadows put him on a direct collision course with Batman, at a time when Wayne is unprepared and out of the game. Bane is huge, merciless and seemingly without a conscience. He kills pretty much everyone he encounters, whether they have declared themselves an enemy or shown their allegiance to him. The voice complaints that were levied at the character after the first promo footage was screened late last year have mostly been solved. Hardy's audio has been clearly re-recorded, but it detracts not at all from a mesmeric performance, which Hardy delivers, much of the time, with his piercing eyes and puffed out pecs. He is a formidable adversary, in a completely different way to Ledger's Joker, but every bit as worthy to go head to head with the Batman.
More than the performances, more than the intriguing, interweaving storylines, more than the myriad glorious fanboy moments that will have Batman aficionados swooning, The Dark Knight Rises is at its most powerful and successful when delivering grand spectacle - which it does a lot. Wally Pfister's cinematography is dazzling and dizzying, whether soaring over the skyscrapers of Gotham or plunging into the depths of its nethers, the film looks absolutely gorgeous throughout. Hans Zimmer's thumping score might even top his incredible work on the previous film, and the action set-pieces never fail to deliver in terms of tension and excitement.
The Dark Knight Rises, perhaps deliberately it should be conceded, is a giant unwieldy beast of a movie, packed full of ideas and images that almost all work in their own right. It serves its fanbase of violently loyal supporters with a perfectly pitched climax, while more than delivering enough thrills and spills to stand alone as an independent summer blockbuster. Once taken off the giant IMAX screen and into the home, the film's flaws will become immediately more apparent. The incredibly strong opening third of the film gives way to a middle segment that seriously flags, as Gotham plunges into despair, Bane allows anarchy to prevail and there is no clear saviour in sight. At times, the film feels like it's simply killing time before Act 3 can kick in, but the good news is that, when it does, it proves incredibly rewarding, with almost every character given a boost for the better. The result is that while perhaps not the perfect Batman finale we deserved, The Dark Knight Rises nevertheless delivers the grandstanding ending we needed, and by its close will leave you on your knees, begging for them to do one more.
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