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MovieJay vs ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) concludes Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy by staying true to a world that deepens our experience more than it allows for escape. Before this series, the superhero genre only ever asked of itself to be an amusing diversion: here’s your hero, here’s what they can do, this is their weakness, and over there is the baddie who will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, allowing our hero to prevail.

Give Nolan his due: he has transformed what a superhero movie can be and what it can do by allowing us to live inside its world–one that painfully reflects our own–particularly with this third installment. The Dark Knight does indeed rise, but since this pic’s generosity is overflowing–to a flaw–the Batman rises not once, but twice here. It’s a movie that is all so “too”: too big, too real, too bombastic, too bloated, too grim, too many love interests, a villain whose intentions are too murky and finally, too little Batman.

And yet, the experience is not insufferable. Nolan pushes things as far as they can go without breaking and then closes the set in fine form.

Returning are Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman; Michael Caine as loyal uber-butler Alfred; Morgan Freeman as genius inventor Lucius Fox; and of course, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon.

Three of the four big new adds to Gotham are Nolan alums from Inception in Tom Hardy as beefcakey villain Bane; Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, a sultry-smart board member of Wayne Industries; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as idealistic young beat cop John Blake. The further addition of Anne Hathaway as the lithe Selina Kyle/Catwoman provides Gotham with its strongest pedigree of female acting talent yet.

TDKR begins 8 years to the day of Harvey Dent’s passing, for which the Batman took the fall for his crimes and has since vanished. The big lie has obviously worn on the Commissioner’s soul since the very opening of the pic shows him ready to spill the beans in a truth-telling speech before Gotham’s finest. His wife and family have left him for Cleveland, where I suppose the grass would technically be greener than Gotham.

Bruce Wayne has retreated within the bowels of Wayne Manor. A tortured recluse, he now sports a goatee and walks with a cane and limp as if to indulge in his own self-pity. Enter Selina, a housekeeper that Alfred sends to deliver his evening meal. They share a brief, electrifying encounter in a set piece where Wayne discovers that she’s cracked his safe containing his late mother’s pearls. Hathaway is a study in moral relativism, hitting familiar notes that include a caustic wit that served her so well in Rachel Getting Married.

Meanwhile, evildoers never sleep and a parallel narrative introduces us in high-flying fashion to Bane: “Born in hell, forged from suffering, hardened by pain”. He’s handed over to CIA officials who board a small aircraft that is eventually hijacked in mid-air by a group of commandos who come rappelling down cables from an imposing C-130 Hercules transport plane floating above. No blue screen here, no CGI; that’s real footage taken above Scotland.

Bane is freakishly imposing, muscle-bound and with a muddled English accent behind that surgically implanted mask, giving him a hybrid Hannibal Lecter/Darth Vader look, but with a pro-wrestler’s bod. His facial get-up reminded me eerily of the great truth that a muzzled dog elicits more fear than one that is unfettered and readily available to chew your face off.

The sequences showing Bane and company charging into Gotham are brilliantly handled, particularly when they blow up a football field and then crash the floor of the Stock Exchange. “There’s no money for you to steal here!”, a trader implores. “Really, than why are you here?”, retorts Bane.

With Bane cementing his grasp on Gotham, he delivers a self-serving message to the city that he’s their great liberator. He foments civil unrest, turning people against the authorities–including Commissioner Gordon–as well as the decadence of one-percenter types, recalling recent socio-economic protests at home and abroad.

Enter Miranda Tate and the news that Wayne Industries is collapsing due to years of neglect and a philandering venture involving a hybrid-fusion nuclear reactor that possibly holds the key to the world’s energy problems. Facing personal and financial disaster, Albert and Wayne engage in the first of three heart-to-hearts that show off a deeper Michael Caine than usual in the series. The world needs the Batman, and though Wayne appears close to springing into action, he doubts whether his soul is up to the task.

The parallel narratives merge before they drift apart once more, with Bane sending a battered Bruce Wayne to the circular walls of a prison where he spent his years as a child.

Christopher Nolan and brother Jonathan deliver their most ambitious set of ideas yet, involving themes of urban terrorism, social upheaval, and the nature and purpose of life in an indifferent and cruel world. TDKR is less polished, less tight than the first two; the kid on the beach pouring water over his perfect sandcastle, electing to deconstruct things down to mud pies before starting all over again from scratch.

The ideas crash-bang against each other, a messy hero in a messier, clunkier story that casts off adventure for shit-kicking realism. The supporting cast is terrific, particularly in the more intimate scenes involving Albert and Wayne, and the meeting-of-the-minds between himself and Selina. I appreciated Cotillard and Gordon-Levitt in their roles, but the connection between the Batman and Catwoman is so good here that I wanted Nolan to give our caped crusader more on-screen time than he gets.

Tom Hardy is menacing in a thankless follow-up to that one-of-a-kind Heath Ledger perf as the Joker. The contraption on his face renders his speech unintelligible throughout, making us wonder why he’s given more dialogue than your average Woody Allen character. But as a villain, I liked him and can not fault him for a screenplay that sees him quickly grabbing control of Gotham only to wait around for 3 long months so that the rest of the cast can get its act together.

Though The Dark Knight Rises never quite adds up to more than the sum of its parts, it somehow holds together for a strong and firm landing by its deliciously ambiguous conclusion. Put it all together, and it’s a triumphant series for Christopher Nolan, who just kept digging and pushing and going for broke right until the end.

 

*** (out of 4)