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DARK KNIGHT RISES
(***½)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:
Christopher Nolan
Writers:
Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David S.Goyer. Based on characters created by: Bob Kane & Chuck Dixon
Starring:
Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman
Length:   164 minutes
Released:   072012
Rating:
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language
“...solidifies Batman's position as arguably the key cinematic myth of our time and Nolan's position as one of our best filmmakers working today..." 

"The Dark Knight Rises" arrives in theaters with the kind of advance hype and anticipation that used to be reserved for such epics as "Gone with the Wind" or "Cleopatra." This is not a new development by any means--thanks to advances like the Internet and other delivery systems for infotainment, it now seems as if hardly a week or two goes by without a new film debuting amidst an avalanche of publicity. The difference is that while most of the anticipation in the cases of those other films is based on a couple of key money shots in the trailer, a flurry of interviews the week that they opening and little else, the desire to see the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's enormously successful rebooting of the Batman saga is based almost entirely on his previous achievements, which demonstrated that one actually could conceive of thoughtful, meaningful and complex narratives that still centered on a guy fighting crime while decked out in a rubber suit.

"Batman Begins" (2005) jump-started a franchise that had been run into the ground with an increasingly juvenile approach by treating the material as seriously as if it were inspired by a highly regarded novel instead of a comic book and the result was one of the very best comic book movies to date--one that fanboys and serious-minded cineastes could embrace equally. Instead of simply coasting on the reputation of the first film, Nolan upped the ante considerably with his 2008 follow-up "The Dark Knight" and came away with an instant classic one of the most commercially and critically successful movies of our time. Therefore, when you see people lining up en masse to see "The Dark Knight Rises," it is not because they are having the usual Pavlovian response to a massive promotional campaign--they are there out of a genuine love for what Nolan has accomplishment and curiosity as to whether he can pull it off again for a third time and come up with something as good as his previous attempts.

In regards to the latter, the answer is a resounding "yes." After the accomplishments of the first two films, one might assume that there was little more that Nolan could do with the material and that any additional films, no matter how elegantly they were produced, would inevitably feel like more of the same, only bigger, louder and with different villains. Instead, Nolan has given us a sprawling and crazily ambitious epic that builds on the achievement of the previous films instead of merely copying them and takes more genuine risks than any major film of the size and scope than Nolan's equally audacious "Inception." Combining comic-book thrills, a bit of social commentary and moments of surprisingly powerful emotion over the course of a near-three-hour running time without a single lag or dull spot, this is popular storytelling of the highest order and solidifies Batman's position as arguably the key cinematic myth of our time and Nolan's position as one of our best filmmakers working today, regardless of genre or scale.

The film takes place eight years after the cataclysmic events of "The Dark Knight" and as it begins, Gotham City is a seemingly more hospitable environment in the wake of the near-canonization of the late district attorney Harvey Dent--following his death, a law was passed in his name has helped to decimate the criminal underworld and has finally made the streets safe. (Of course, Harvey was, in reality, the villainous Two-Face and came close to destroying the city until finally defeated and killed by Batman, who took the blame for his crimes and disappeared on the basis that Gotham City needed a real hero to rally around and the idealized version of Dent fit the bill better.) However, cracks are beginning to appear in the seemingly perfect surfaces--the Dent Law is being threatened with repeal because of certain elements of a questionable legality, the division between the haves and the have-nots is growing greater with every passing day and a guilt-ridden Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the only two people who knows the truth about Dent and Batman, is contemplating revealing the big secret even as he is in danger of losing his job thanks to the machinations of those who want things to stay exactly as they are.

Through all of this, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been living in self-imposed exile within the walls of Wayne Manor ever since taking the fall for Dent and hanging up his rubber suit for good. Although rumored to have gone the full Howard Hughes during this time, he merely limps around the house and avoids contact with pretty much everyone except for loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Unfortunately for him, his absence has had a grim effect on his business empire--a good portion of his wealth has been lost on a clean energy initiative that apparently did not pan out and he is in danger of losing the rest of Wayne Industries to unscrupulous board members. Besides Alfred and loyal weapons designer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), there are also a couple of new faces that arrive in the hopes of breaking Bruce out of his ennui. One is Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a resourceful young cop who shares a similar background with Bruce and seems to have a pretty good idea that the reclusive playboy and the Caped Crusader were one and the same. The other is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a rich and beautiful philanthropist who spearheaded Bruce's stab at green energy and who just might be the one to bring him back to life both professionally and personally.

As it turns out, what gets Bruce out of his shell and back into his cowl is the arrival of two other newcomers of a more nefarious nature. When we first see Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), she merely appears to be the world's most ridiculously attractive catering company employee but she proves to be the world's most ridiculously attractive cat burglar as well when she makes her way into Bruce's room makes off not only with a valuable string of pearls but with his actual fingerprints as well. It turns out that she was hired for this job as part of a dark conspiracy that also involves the fearsome Bane (Tom Hardy). Even in the admittedly strange annals of Batman villains, Bane is certainly a singular figure. As a young man, he suffered terrible tortures that have left him permanently wearing a mask so as to help alleviate his constant pain. Now he is a ferociously cunning mercenary who has engineered a spectacular escape from the authorities and has turned up in Gotham City with a diabolical plan to isolate it from the outside world and inspire the ordinary citizens to rise up at last against the elite that take but never seem to give back. Before long, there is anarchy in the streets and show trials where the "guilty" are forced to answer for their so-called crimes. As it turns out, Bane has more on his mind than rallying the working class to Occupy the streets and it is up to Batman to save the day but even his efforts and technological gifts may not be enough to rescue the populace that was once so quick to reject him.

One of the things that have made Nolan's previous Batman films more exciting and memorable than the rest of the superhero films that have been glutting multiplexes over the last few years has been the in the way that he uses them as a way of exploring the concerns of the real world--primarily the increasing paranoia of the post 9/11 world and the lengths that people will go to in order to maintain the illusion of order--in ways that are both complex and thought-provoking. This time around, Nolan and co-writer Jonathan Nolan have amplified that sense of fear lurking just beneath the seemingly calm facade that everything could just go "boom" in an instant and leave people with absolutely nothing through no fault of their own. At the same time, they also layer in a inspired meditation on the growing schism between the privileged and the poor and the ways in which the former willfully ignore the needs of the latter, who are growing in numbers and anger and need only someone to channel their sense of betrayal into something horrifying.

Despite what some conspiracy theorists might try to have you believe, this film was written and put into production long before the Occupy movement began in earnest last year but Nolan taps into that sense of rage and disenfranchisement--which existed long before anyone began occupying anything--so powerfully that if you can mentally subtract the rubber-clad heroes and villains and their elaborate toys, there are images on display here that will seem all too familiar to anyone who has been watching the news in the last few months. However, without going into the kind of details that would unveil spoilers, Nolan doesn't not present this material in an overtly black-and-white manner--instead, he has enough respect for his audiences to allow them to wrestle with the ideas that he has raised without spoon-feeding the answers to them in the most simplistic manner possible.

Despite all that, there is far more going on with "The Dark Knight Rises" than a mere exercise in elaborate zeitgeist-tapping. There is also an incredibly ambitious narrative going on that at first builds upon ideas that were previously developed in "The Dark Knight" and then reaches back to "Batman Begins" in a way that propels the story forward while also tying the entire trilogy together in fascinating and unexpected ways. There are a couple of points where it seems as if the story is about to lurch into a more conventional mode but at every turn, the screenplay winds up turning these moments around so that they pay off in interesting and often surprising ways. The characters--both old and new--are given the kind of dimensions that are rarely seen in films of this type and the extended running time gives them all their moments to shine without ever bogging down the pace as a result. From a technical standpoint, the film is likewise stuffed with astonishments. There are set-pieces here ranging from massive chase scenes and images of shocking destruction to brutal fights conducted in tight spaces and all of them have been put together with the kind of care and excitement that will take your breath away, especially during the points when Wally Pfister's cinematography expands from regular 35mm to the miracles created by the use of the enormous IMAX cameras. (Since roughly a third of the film is shot in IMAX, it is highly recommended that you see it in that format--and not the fake version plaguing multiplexes--if at all possible.)

Another recurring element of the saga, not to mention a testament to Nolan's talent and reputation, has been his ability to attract a caliber of actor that one does not often associate with this particular style of filmmaking. Series regulars Bale, Oldman, Freeman and Caine all get the opportunity to bring closure to their characters and go about it in stunning fashion--Caine has moments here that are among the very best of his career. Among the newcomers, Anne Hathaway has the unenviable task of taking on the role of Selina Kyle (the name "Catwoman" is never mentioned at all as far as I can recall), a part that has been essayed so memorably in the past by the likes of Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer and others. But she completely makes it her own, nearly stealing the film single-handedly. She has several moments where she switches personas from a frightened, screaming innocent to the confident, cynical Kyle in a matter of seconds that are very effective. Her interplay with Bale's Batman, particularly in a rooftop fight scene, is spot on straight out of the source material. From "Inception," Nolan has brought over Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy and they do an excellent job of quickly fitting into the proceedings--the latter shows that he has charisma to burn despite spending the entire film with his face obscured by a mask and a voice so rumbly that there are moments here and there when it is hard to understand what he is saying. And as in the previous films, Nolan has sprinkled the supporting cast with a number of unexpected familiar faces that turn up for a scene or two to add further juice to the proceedings--again, I will leave their identities for your to discover for yourself.

To be honest, if I had to pick one of the Batman movies as the best of the bunch, I would probably still have to stick with "The Dark Knight" and that is largely because Bane, despite Hardy's efforts, is simply not as interesting of a bad guy as the master class of malevolence that was Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as the Joker. If I'm allowed to nitpick, then there are a few things to contend with. Bane is dispatched far too easily and some of the social underpinnings about class warfare are given short shrift. Also, a few gaps in logic come up. One involves a bomb and it's after effects even if it is flown several miles away from Gotham. Another is just how do those police officers survive so well in the sewers for the amount of time they're down there. Those quibbles aside, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a worthy denouement, an intelligent, expertly crafted and thoroughly exhilarating blast of big screen magic. It’s the sequel you wanted, maintaining a level of quality only a select few franchises have sustained before it.

DARK KNIGHT RISES © 2013 WARNER BROS
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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