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Bat Out of Hell

MOVIE REVIEW
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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Ron Phillips/Warner Brothers Pictures

Although “The Dark Knight Rises" is chock-full of revelations and twists, this review doesn't reveal anything but the odd spoiler contained — so proceed at your peril.

Full disclosure: This reviewer is not much of a fan of superhero or comic-book films. In fact, I haven’t even seen “Marvel’s The Avengers” or “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which for some may disqualify me from being able to write about their rival in the 2012 summer blockbuster stakes, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Luckily, Batman is the least superhuman of all the comic-book heroes, blessed — as he is — with a distinct lack of superpowers. And Christopher Nolan hasn’t seemed particularly interested in making traditional comic book films in his helming of the franchise so far. As such, I really loved “The Dark Knight” and still believe it to be up there with the best American films (Hollywood or otherwise) of the last 30 years. But that was essentially a crime film, if a slightly fantastical one.

The first thing to say is that “The Dark Knight Rises” is a very different from its predecessor. If “Batman Begins” was a dark, psychological martial arts film and “The Dark Knight” was demented tech-noir, “The Dark Knight Rises” is in many ways situated in much more recognizable action/spectacular territory. It contains underground lairs, bombs with ticking countdown timers and a frenetic, bombastic finale which ends with everyone looking to the skies in broad daylight, rather than the grimy, dank back alleys that Batman (Christian Bale) slinked down at the end of “The Dark Knight." In this film, the story is opened out to the world outside Gotham in a way that seems uncharacteristic: We even see the U.S. president talking about Gotham on television at one point, like it’s some kind of late-’90s asteroid-collision movie.

There’s little point in recounting the plot because it’s been public knowledge for the year or so since the first of many trailers was released. What’s so enticing about that “twilight’s last gleaming” trailer in particular was Selina Kyle’s (Anne Hathaway) whispered warning to Bruce Wayne about the oncoming reckoning from arch-villain Bane (Tom Hardy), and her asking how he “could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” In that line is the suggestion that Bane might in some way be a warped hero for our time. In the years since the last installment, we in the real world have endured the bulk of the financial crash and a collapse in belief in many of our most respected societal institutions. Might billionaire Bruce Wayne be cast as the semi-villain of the piece and have to undergo a redemption and reincarnation of sorts to emerge as a recalibrated hero for our time?

In some ways, this theme is present and correct in the film. But Mr. Nolan and his fellow screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer are much more interested in personal motivations than social commentary, as they should be while attempting to ground such flights of fancy and create empathy for unrealistic characters. So while some of Bane’s pronunciations do ring with a timely tenor, and Wayne/Batman does undergo a rebirth of sorts, his redemption is a personal and emotional one rather than any renunciation of the riches that brought him power.

This steadfast focus on personal motivations becomes the screenplay’s guiding obsession, almost to its detriment. All the characters seem to be imbued with numerous deep-rooted psychological imperatives for their actions until they almost pile atop each other. It gets faintly excessive with the near-mystical qualities ascribed to the letter from Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that Alfred (Michael Caine) burned at the end of the last film, which the script alternately deploys to either spur Batman into action, lead him down a path of martyrdom or go into exile, depending on which juncture we’ve arrived at in the trilogy.

The other thing we all know from advance publicity is that Selina Kyle/Catwoman makes an appearance in the film. There’s been some concern that Catwoman represents the camp, less serious, pre-Nolan Batman lore and might seem out of place. I, too, was momentarily worried when I first heard the musical motif she’s been designated like all Batman villains, which came across as almost Pink Panther-jaunty in comparison to the Joker’s jittery, nervous drone and Bane’s thudding chant. But we only hear a brief snatch of it once, and thereafter Catwoman is a nicely judged character in-keeping with the general tone, offering some necessary lightness and only one of those horribly obvious (“cat got your tongue?”) quips.

So how does it hold up against the other two films? Well, as some have already noted, although Mr. Hardy’s Bane is suitably evil and nearly as unpredictably terrifying as Heath Ledger’s Joker, the comparison provokes a realization of how special Mr. Ledger was in the previous film. Watching “The Dark Knight” again recently, you have to marvel at Ledger’s cunning variety in his physical manifestation of the Joker, from that hunched-shoulders walk, to the insane little skips as he’s blowing up Gotham hospital, to the absurd faux timidity of his capture in the police station. Nevertheless, despite having a vocal style too reminiscent of a Bond villain, Mr. Hardy does very well — especially considering he can’t express much with that menacing construction bolted to him. (Incidentally, they cleaned up Bane’s voice far too much following the complaints about it being inaudible. In the press screening, at least, his voice seems amplified as if it’s been assigned its own speaker channel, which is mildly off-putting.)

Wally Pfister’s Imax cinematography is utilized in pretty much the same way as the previous film, although in the intervening years we’ve become more accustomed to seeing high-resolution digital films filling Imax screens. This has the effect of making Mr. Nolan’s laudably retro use of standard 35mm film alongside the occasional burst of Imax footage seem slightly more jarring this time around — but in a good way. For example there’s a clever juxtaposition in a scene where Alfred reminisces about an Italian holiday, and we’re transported from grainy Gotham (35mm stock) to pristine Florence (Imax).

In set-piece terms, there’s nothing to match the utter beauty of the scene in “The Dark Knight” where the Joker pursues Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) police truck in an articulated lorry. But refreshingly, the central action scene is nothing more than a brutal fist-fight between Batman and Bane that will no doubt again result in parental complaints to classification boards around the world about their lenient ratings.

Like the other two films, it zips through enough plot material for about half-a-dozen films, occasionally expositing too obviously and leaving gaps that could be overanalyzed come second viewing. Batman’s return from the depths in the final act may be a little too convenient for some, something of which Mr. Nolan must be especially wary considering how the social-media sphere ravaged “Prometheus” to within an inch of its life earlier in the summer. But such forensics will surely be limited as most will find this final installment to be as astounding, exhilarating, thematically complex and technically impressive as we’ve all come to expect from Mr. Nolan and crew.

As with the concluding chapter of many trilogies, it’s not the most impressive episode of the series — but a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the cycle. Now is also the time when we can start to look back on the trilogy as a whole and to appreciate Mr. Nolan’s achievement, as surely he has crated something truly special with these three films in Hollywood blockbuster terms, certainly. The only criticism one can level with Messrs. Nolan and Bale is that they never really solved the conundrum of making Wayne likable and dimensional enough. In reducing the charm and smarm of previous manifestations he’s become more realistic, but throughout the series we’ve never really come to know the mind of this very eccentric billionaire. Solving this Wayne-empathy paradox — in our quickly changing and ever-polarizing world of the 1-percent club and the rest of us — will be a challenge for the next unfortunate soul tasked with following Mr. Nolan and resurrecting Batman the next time the culture requires it.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Opens on July 20 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; music by Hans Zimmer; production design by Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh; costumes by Lindy Hemming; produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Charles Rove; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle), Tom Hardy (Bane), Marion Cotillard (Miranda Tate), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox).

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