Friday, July 27, 2012
The Dark Knight Rises
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Nestor Carbonell, Juno Temple, Ben Mendelsohn, Brett Cullen
Running Time: 165 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
So, here we are again. It's been four years since the release of The Dark Knight, but it definitely seems much longer. Re-watching it again recently I was surprised how poorly it's held up and how on target my original complaints were. They only loom larger now. Poor editing choices, pacing problems, cringe-worthy dialogue, a poorly written love interest and a third act mess. And it was still pretty great. Much it saved, or at least greatly covered, by the late Heath Ledger's unforgettable Oscar-winning performance. It really was the rare case of one actor rescuing an entire film and a lesson in the danger of heightened expectations.
Now, with the arrival of The Dark Knight Rises comes the closing chapter in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, and another instance where it's difficult to approach a Batman film without seeing it through the prism of a real-life tragedy. At least for a while. We can only hope that doesn't last, because very little of what occurs in this final installment bares little resemblance to a reality we know. And what a relief. This is escapism at its finest. It's not only by far the strongest film in the series, but Nolan's grand-scale masterpiece and the movie everyone insists its predecessor is. He takes the gloves off, raising the stakes and escalating the mayhem. Knowing this is the end frees him up to anything, and boy does he take full advantage.
A palpable sense of fear and tension comes from sensing everything's up for grabs and anything can happen. And it mostly does. There seems to be no rules, but within that framework Nolan still manages to create something structurally sound and airtight, free of filler and flaws. Nearly three hours breeze by without a minute wasted. Of course, there's no performance like Ledger's, but there shouldn't be. In fact, it wouldn't even fit here. What's delivered instead is a more ambitious threat both terrifyingly physical and deliberately planned, as well as two tour-de-force supporting turns that steal the film outright. The results on screen don't lie. But the real story isn't how much better this is than Nolan's previous Batman outings, or anything else in the genre. It's that it isn't even close.
Revealing anything is probably giving away too much, so it's best to tread lightly when discussing the plot, which is as multi-layered as The Dark Knight, but more focused, with much of its thematic content calling back to Batman Begins. Eight years have passed since Batman took the fall for District Attorney Harvey Dent's death and a crippled, bearded, Howard Hughes-like Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) remains secluded in his mansion, even as trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) unsuccessfully attempts to coax him out of seclusion. Wayne Enterprises is crumbling after a failed investment in Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) energy project while Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) grows tired of living the lie that inspired the Dent Act, a bill that's cleaned up crime and restored peace to Gotham City. At least temporarily.
Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked mercenary with an intricate, carefully orchestrated plan to gain control of the city and instigate a revolution, restoring power to the people. With support from Gordon and most of the Gotham Police, including rookie detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Batman/Bruce Wayne is drawn out of retirement. But he must also contend with the arrival of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), whose own motivations may or may not include helping him.
From the exciting opening hijack scene revealing Bane, the film grabs hold and doesn't let go. Sounding like a Scottish Darth Vader, talking and breathing heavily through his life-sustaining gas mask, he's a horrifying presence as much for his oratory delivery as his freakish, hulking physique. All the complaints about his voice being unintelligible are unfounded and the few times I did had to concentrate on what he was saying was well worth it since its so hypnotically creepy. You actually look forward to his soliloquies about the troubles of Gotham and hang on every word, which is a good thing considering he lectures a lot. Beyond that, the physicality Tom Hardy brings to the role is astounding, making his fights with Batman the most intense the series has seen. There's a feeling he could literally die at this man's hands. Brilliantly skirting the line between comic book adversary and reality inspired cult leader, he's true enough to be believable in both worlds, but successfully functions as both in Nolan's.
Bane's motivations aren't outright political or socioeconomic, nor are his actions (most notably an attack on Gotham's stock exchange) meant as some kind of endorsement or condemnation of the Occupy movement. The film isn't a social commentary. It's about Batman. And this may be the first Batman film that really is. Or rather, it's more about Bruce Wayne. The line between the two is fuzzier than ever in this installment, if not eliminated entirely. As a result Nolan plays fast and loose with Batman's identity, finally freed from the constrictions of having to "hide it," making Bale's performance more compelling as a result. The two personas are so inseparable that when a major character finally pieces the two together he feels out of the loop and the last to get the memo. Bale spends his least amount of time in the Bat suit, which feels right and means more when he's eventually back in it. That gravely voice is still there, but for some reason it bothered me less this time, either just because he isn't under the cowl as much or there's too much else going on to care. The movie is literally it's title, and that focus results in Bale's best work in the role yet.
Gotham City is also for the first time becomes a living, breathing character and fleshed out as much more than merely an action setting. This is a story that feels epic in scale, more so when Bane's plan starts to come to fruition and we head into the exhilarating final act, which contains a pair of shocking, game-changing twists. The city is literally at war with itself but the movie never feels like its playing in standard action territory because these sequences are seamlessly presented with minimal CGI, and the story stakes feel so high. Unlike The Dark Knight, nearly all of that action takes place in broad daylight so we can actually see what's happening and the camera isn't shaking, which makes for a notable improvement in presentation. It might also mark the first time a nuclear bomb is used in a movie in a way that doesn't feel contrived or ridiculous.
Nolan's script opens up the entire city and pushes every important supporting character to center stage alongside Batman. It could have easily felt like an Inception reunion with so many cast members from that film on board, but it doesn't because each is plugged into wildly different supporting roles that help piece together the ambitious narrative. Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox probably has the least to do this time around while Michael Caine gets some of his most emotional moments in as Alfred. Despite being laid up in a hospital bed for nearly half the film, Oldman still manages to be as much of a force as Jim Gordon, this time eaten up with regret. And taking the requisite Eric Roberts/Tom Berenger veteran character comeback role in a Nolan movie, Matthew Modine turns in exceptionally solid work as a clueless, but power-hungry Deputy Commissioner Foley.
If the Two-Face material felt shoehorned into the last act of the last film, than this one represents the most successful integration of two villains yet, if you want to classify Selina Kyle as a villain. Bane doesn't care about the haves or the have nots, the one percenters, or the rich getting richer, but Selina does and let's Bruce Wayne know about it. Yes, it's true she isn't referred to as "Catwoman" by anyone during the course of the film which makes perfect sense since it wouldn't fly in this context. Of all the villains in the pantheon, Nolan was supposedly most resistant to incorporating this character into his grittier, more grounded universe, and it's hard to blame him. Michelle Pfeiffer's performance in Batman Returns, falsely held up as the gold standard, may have been appropriate for that film, but the interpretation is campy beyond belief, and that's coming from someone who loves the classic 60's TV series.
As the trailers have hinted, Anne Hathaway absolutely knocks it out of the park, delivering the definitive interpretation of the character by making her a believable human being with real motivations. Devastatingly sexy and lethally dangerous, Selina's damaged goods who might have past the point of redemption and I loved how the usually super-expressive Hathaway's eyes just seem to go dead. There's legitimate doubt which side she's on that lasts until practically the final scene, and is only enhanced by Hathaway playing Selina as if she might not know either. And I love the catsuit, which actually seems like a functional uniform for her job rather than a costume. She's also given just the right amount of screen time to make the necessary impact. Much like Ledger, in hindsight it seems impossible anyone would think she was miscast or another actress could have done this better. And I've thought it too. We couldn't have been more wrong.
Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate is thankfully no Rachel Dawes, and along with Selina Kyle, finally disproves the allegation that Nolan is incapable of writing strong female characters.Calling Hathaway's performance the picture's strongest is high praise, especially considering Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost walks away with it. Despite what you may have heard, his part as Gotham cop John Blake is so huge in both camera time and importance that you may as well consider him a co-lead alongside Bale. As the only hopeful, idealistic cop left amidst a sea of corruption, he seems to understand Bruce Wayne in ways no one else can, and Levitt plays him as the ultimate good guy, struggling to hold on to his values even as his city collapses around him. The movie's as much about him as it is Batman.
There comes this point in the picture when Nolan does something we didn't think he'd ever do, that he swore he'd never do, and even Christian Bale said he better not even try. But somehow he pulls it off, and without us even realizing he did until it's over. It's surprising just how powerful this ending is. Talk about sticking the landing. It feels like the cherry on top of a sundae, bringing the saga circle and confirming that Nolan hasn't been overpraised for his resuscitation of a franchise that was left for dead before 2005's Batman Begins. Even when the execution had holes, his overall vision for the trilogy was airtight. So now the strongest film gets a somewhat divisive reaction. Why? Because Ledger's not in it?
The Dark Knight Rises, besides actually being fun, feels like The Empire Strikes Back of the series, fulfilling all its lofty ambitions while still leaving us wanting more. Nolan could easily continue, but he's right to go out on top. Saving the best for last, he's come the closest to shaking the stigma associated with comic book movies by using its origins as a jumping-off point to something bigger. His work's done, but the beauty of the Batman franchise has always been how open it is to wildly different interpretations. Just pity the poor director who has to follow this one.