Monday, July 23, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" -- If Only All Comic Book Heroes Could be Placed in Such Good Hands...

Back in 2005 a new kind of Batman movie was released and "Batman Begins" told the story of the Dark Knight with a quiet intensity that was very different than the cartoonish versions that fans had grown up with. Instead of the campy comedy featured in the past we now had a story that respected the sensibilities of grown-up fans, yet could appeal to audiences who simply liked a good action film. By the time "The Dark Knight" arrived there were high expectations for Christopher Nolan's Batman and he delivered a masterpiece of a film with a breathtakingly good villain. So as the release of "The Dark Knight Rises" drew near few questioned whether on not it would be a good movie- mostly we just wondered how Nolan could possibly top the near perfection of "The Dark Knight." Fortunately, Nolan is smart enough to realize that he didn't have to.

Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent Gotham City has enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, thanks to the Dent Act, that has seen a near eradication of organized crime. But that peace has meant that Bruce Wayne has had to give up his crime-fighting alter-ego as Batman took the blame for Dent's crimes in order to give the city the hero it needed in the wake of The Joker's reign of terror. Broken in spirit, and body, Bruce has become a Howard Hughes-like recluse that ghosts around his mansion still brooding over the loss of Rachel Dawes and Gotham's rejection of Batman.

But Gotham's resurrection is only an illusion. When Bruce catches a beautiful woman stealing a necklace out of an "unbreakable" safe his curiosity is piqued and as he digs into her past, and her motives, he realizes that something bigger than a one-time theft is brewing. But events start spiraling out of control and before Bruce can figure out what's going on a congressman is kidnapped and Commissioner Gordon is shot.

Adding to Bruce's problems is a failed green energy project that has not only wiped out a significant portion of his wealth, but also has the potential to be turned into a nuclear weapon- and there's a man named Bane (Tom Hardy) who has the power to take that weapon and the will to use it.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is, like all the other Batman movies in Nolan's series, a film that takes the story of Batman seriously. I was never a huge fan of the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney versions of Batman that I essentially grew up with. Sometimes there were elements that really worked, like Jack Nicholson's Joker or Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, but I always felt that Tim Burton's style was too cartoonish- though it was understandable interpretation of the comic-book hero. When I first saw "Batman Begins" I realized it was the Batman I had always wanted to see. The story wasn't presented in a way that assumed we had to live in an alternative universe to make it believable. In Nolan's version you were allowed to live in the real world and still believe that a man dressed as a bat could drop from the rooftops and save your life-- and I loved him for that.

Instead of trying to recapture the sly essence of The Joker, an impossible feat after Heath Ledger's amazing performance, Nolan uses Bane as a blunt instrument to further batter Batman's bruised soul. Bruce is basically the living embodiment of Gotham. He has affluence, on the surface, but his core is weary and weak. Worse, as Bruce begins to realize that Gotham still needs him there are those who doubt his ability and resolve-- most notably his loyal butler, and surrogate father, Alfred. Nolan brilliantly uses the seductive snark of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) to ignite Bruce's interest and will to return rather than rely on the brute force of Bane to forcibly drag him back into the fight; and the balance between the two antagonists really gives Christian Bale the chance to explore depths of Bruce's character we haven't had a chance to see before.

Nolan, as a director, has become known for big set pieces and explosive action and "The Dark Knight Rises" delivers everything you'd expect. The new toy in Batman's arsenal is the Batwing- and it is very cool-- but the most stunning sequences belong to Bane's character as he goes for destruction on a massive scale. But Nolan's real skill is in his ability to set the pace between the action sequences and the necessary bits of plot-moving conversational scenes are just as compelling as the rest of the film. It's the only nearly 3-hour film that I have ever sat through that didn't have me fidgeting or looking at my watch.

The only complaint I have for "The Dark Knight Rises" is the plot device that makes it necessary to cover up so much of Bane's face and obscure his voice. I won't argue that we need facial expressions to connect to Bane as a villain- after all, Darth Vader was convincing without any part of his face showing. But Bane is the kind of villain that likes to give speeches. His character is somewhat grandiose and part of his ability to compel people to follow him is his ability to convey a kind of for-the-people bit of rhetoric. The only problem is that for us, the audience, it's hard to believe in his charisma when we can't always understand what he's saying. I loved the tone of Tom Hardy's voice and the resonance that came through the device- but I'm baffled that the articulation wasn't cleaner.

I also have to give credit to Anne Hathaway for delivering a terrific performance as Selina Kyle. I was dubious at the casting but will gladly admit that Nolan's vision was on-the-money as always. Her interactions with Bruce are what set this film apart from the rest as she infuses the character with a weary humor. She's tough and canny and her fear of Bane is what elevates him beyond a petty thug and shows the audience that he is a real threat to Batman.

I've tried to write this review with as few spoilers as possible so I won't go into more detail about the plot other than to say that Nolan really made me happy with the way he ended The Dark Knight series. He brought the story full circle and gave Batman the ending we wanted- and the one the character deserved. He crafted each film to stand on it's own but respected the series as a whole and delivered what I think is probably the best trilogy of films I have had the pleasure of seeing (and I say this as someone who grew up on "Star Wars" and loved it). I won't say "The Dark Knight Rises" is better than it's immediate predecessor, but it is terrific in its own right and absolutely delivered on every expectation.

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