3.5 / 5 stars
You had to expect that Christoper Nolan would throw everything he’s got into The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter of his bar-setting Batman series. We know the guy has a taste for big movies, and when his career couldn’t afford big movies, he played with big concepts (think Memento). So, with his only chance to wrap up his rabidly beloved trilogy, it should come as no surprise that Nolan delivers a scattershot first act stuffed with new characters, an overload of giant sets, action in the sky and below the earth, long blasts of dialogue, acts of terrorism holding New York City hostage (yes, it’s Gotham, but we’re clearly meant to know it’s New York), and a rousing finale that real Nolan fans will recognize — and love.
It’s a huge, mixed bag of Nolan-sized ambition, working both for and against the film. The story begins eight years after Bruce Wayne’s (Chrisitan Bale) exile, his caped alter-ego having taken the hit for Gotham’s demise in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Wayne is holed up in his mansion while the city enjoys a respite from crime thanks to the unforgiving laws attributed to the deceased Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, seen briefly in photos and flashbacks). But the enigmatic billionaire has reasons to come out of hiding: his charities for orphaned boys are going to pot, though that’s just emotional framework, and a massive revolution is brewing from a dank headquarters deep beneath the city. It’s a traditional, comic-book style plot, put through its modern, real-life paces by writers Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, whose talents for bringing fantasy to the brink of reality is one of the great strengths of the Dark Knight series.
The creature running the planned uprising is an intimidating man-monster named Bane (the character first appeared in Batman comics in the 90s), a massively built, bald-headed villain with a vicious-looking, medically necessary mask covering his airways, and gripping his skull. The comparisons to both Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader are unavoidable. Having been “born in hell” — we won’t spoil the details here — Bane has a serious bone to pick with the world, and wants nothing more than his own brutal version of Occupy Gotham, with all levels of wealth, greed, government and law enforcement out of the picture forever. Just the kind of moral tussle that’s prevalent, and maybe oversimplified, throughout the series.
To introduce Bane, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, sly, wry and up to the challenge), police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and rich girl Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), amid a story recap and a fresh setup (pant, pant), Nolan creates an introductory act that just can’t get settled in. Every character’s purpose surfaces eventually, but the pieces all initially bounce around without a place to land. An early scene, in which Catwoman black markets Wayne’s fingerprints, exists only as a story catalyst, rushing along without much traction. I continue to wonder whether the distraction was necessary at all.
Once the story moves to blockbuster territory, things gets moving. Bane and his cronies blast up the stock exchange in a scene reminiscent of The Dark Knight‘s brilliant bank robbery intro, but without that sequence’s ingenuity. Again, this is Nolan disguising a plot accelerator as a strong action scene. Hey, there are worse ways to ignite a narrative.
From there, The Dark Knight Rises gets more satisfying with time. With a menacing stature perfected in Warrior, Tom Hardy marches Bane through Gotham in an appropriately vicious manner, realizing his ultimate goal of holding 12 million people hostage. The streets are barren, there’s a nuclear bomb on the loose, heroes are set up to rise and fall — we have a more focused, more reliable superhero thriller. The football game setpiece you’ve probably seen in the trailer is as impressive as advertised, though the visual aftermath of destroyed building and bridges dotting the New York City skyline is a little too frightening for the real world.
The film’s finale almost redeems its missteps. With a rhythm that mimics the final act of Inception and The Prestige, and an urgent theme from composer Hans Zimmer, Nolan expertly layers tense action, plot revelations, flashbacks and a coda that will leave you wanting more. Consider it a fine-tuned filtering. If only the rest of The Dark Knight Rises were as sharp and as gripping.