“The Dark Knight Rises” is the biggest, darkest, and arguably the best of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s deservedly lauded Batman reboots. Epic in every sense of the word, this is a colossal movie, both in terms of spectacle and length, and defies conventional wisdom that popular movies can’t handle complex plots or juggle multiple points of view. In any event, the sort of visual spectacle on display in “The Dark Knight Rises” hasn’t been seen regularly since Cecil B. DeMille. A thoroughly engrossing, exciting, and suspenseful movie, it is also to some degree a movie on steroids and speed, and the jackhammer Hans Zimmer score does beat you into submission. No matter. You won’t be bored.
It’s only been four years since the release of “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s über-hit sequel to his Batman reboot, “Batman Begins,” but on screen eight years have passed. Batman no longer prowls Gotham City having taken the blame for the death of the late, beloved District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart in “The Dark Knight”). Only Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman himself know that he was turned into the scarred madman Two-Face by The Joker (the late Heath Ledger).
The truth is eating away at Gordon, who comes perilously close to spilling the beans at a public function. While we get the idea that the so-called “Dent Act” is effectively curtailing organized crime, it may be curtailing some civil liberties as well. This is a movie that doesn’t blink at the suggestion that a societal obsession with law and order that’s based on lies quickly turns cancerous and rots the body politic from the inside out.
Nolan dealt to some extent with the theme of society’s response to terrorism in “The Dark Knight,” a movie which made a mint. Here he deals with two of our hottest-button topics: terrorism and economic collapse. In a comic book adaptation? Damn straight. Nolan probably understands better than any living filmmaker that genre is irrelevant in terms of quality and that in fact you may stand a better chance of sneaking weighty themes into genre fiction. (Remember “The Twilight Zone?” Rod Serling knew that although the networks wouldn’t let him deal openly with themes like racism in “serious” TV dramas, he could easily slip them into science fiction stories.) The result is the darkest superhero movie yet.
Of course Batman is no superhero in the traditional sense. A misanthropic vigilante with no super powers, he has more in common with the Charles Bronson character in the “Death Wish” movies than Superman or Captain America. As a boy, Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ murder in a senseless street crime—a trauma whose scars have never healed. Wayne has become a sulking recluse in “The Dark Knight Rises,” rumored to have grown eight-inch nails a la Howard Hughes.
He’s lured out of retirement by the appearance of cat burglar Selina Kyle, beguilingly played by Anne Hathaway at her absolute sexiest. Fanboys know that Selina Kyle is better known as Catwoman, but that name is never used in the movie, a fact that few may actually notice. It doesn’t matter. This is the most intelligently the part has been written for a movie or TV show, and Hathaway plays the role deliciously, savoring every facet of an enticing bad girl who’s constantly battling her decent impulses.
She’s less the problem than Bane, a super-terrorist played by Tom Hardy in his second Christopher Nolan role (he played a far more charming and urbane character in “Inception”). We’re told Bane was “born in hell, forged from suffering, hardened by pain.” No, that doesn’t sound good, and it isn’t. This type of character, who exploits the class-warfare rhetoric for his own ends, has been seen before, but seldom this intimidatingly. Bane has been forged by pain and and anger every bit as much as Batman, and his mask, a Darth Vader type of mechanical device, covers his lower face and mouth, the only portion of Batman’s face that’s left uncovered. Read into that what you will. It is difficult to make out some of Bane’s dialogue, and you’ll just have to bear with it. The important lines do generally come through. That Hardy actually manages to impart his monstrous character with some emotional depth under these circumstances is extraordinary.
Nolan, as he’s been increasingly prone to do, has cast his own personal repertory company here. Michael Caine, who first worked him in “Batman Begins” and has been every movie he’s made since, plays Wayne family retainer Alfred for the third time. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are likewise on their third Batman movie for Nolan. But this time he’s also cast Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who like Hardy, co-starred in “Inception” to the cast. Despite the size of the growing cast, both play important characters.
This movie should be a continuity nightmare. At least three cities stood in for Gotham City at various points during the sprawling production, and yet the only glaring continuity error is a sudden nightfall for a chase following a daylight robbery. (In point of fact, “The Dark Knight Rises” was shot on at least three continents.) The action set pieces are marvels to behold—the movie opens with a daring aerial raid that any James Bond movie would envy. This is a movie that has no problems topping itself, though. Nolan tends to shoot sequences practical as much as he can, and nothing in the movie looks CGI. The special effects, where they’re used, are top drawer. Batman’s new vehicle, an aerial urban assault craft called “The Bat,” is extremely convincing. The property damage pyrotechnics are frighteningly realistic.
Audaciously constructed (it’s some ten minutes at least before Christian Bale actually has a scene) and cleverly plotted (there are at least three big plot twists, and no, not telling), this is a movie thriller that defies conventional wisdom in several respects. There’s less Batman in it than might be expected, but his appearances are uniformly exciting.
Make no mistake: This is a dark movie for a summer blockbuster, but “The Dark Knight Rises” delivers on every count. Literate, intelligent and thoroughly entertaining, this one is likely to get repeat business. Word is some multiplexes have requested extra Brinks’ pickups for the weekend. They’ll probably need it.