Monday, July 23, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" Review

You’re gonna love the new Batman. Comparably untouched by studio meddling, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious follow-up to The Dark Knight breaks the precedent set by X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3 that all comic book threequels have to suck. “Breaks” isn’t even the right word. With the brute force and visual muscle of its immersive large-format IMAX action sequences, “eviscerates” is better.

Eight years after Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent, the posthumous Dent Act has all but stomped out organized crime in Gotham City. Bruce Wayne has hung up cape and cowl, skulking about his neglected manor with the shades drawn. It takes the catastrophic threat posed by terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) to draw Wayne out of his self-imposed exile. Everything is at stake, and Batman depends upon the aid of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, who spends most of the movie in a hospital bed), a hotheaded rookie cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and (just maybe) cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). 

At a paunchy 165 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises could admittedly use some leaner editing. That it pulls double duty as Batman’s grand finale and an introduction to so many important new characters keeps the film from feeling as conclusive as it should. However, as an exhibition of raw blockbuster filmmaking, it caps the trilogy superbly, claiming within its bloated whole some of Nolan’s most impressive camerawork and exhilarating set pieces.

It’s no secret that the director had a lot to live up to following the overwhelming critical acclaim and commercial success of The Dark Knight. The Oscar-winning performance of the late Heath Ledger cast a pall of uncertainty over the third and final chapter in his Batman universe. Could any villain live up to the anarchic menace of the Joker? Speaking through a speech-muffling respirator, Bane doesn’t elicit easy comparisons, expect by contrast. It isn’t a performance-centric role, but Bane is an effective antagonist because he represents, for once, a legitimate mortal threat to our hero. When’s the last time a comic book movie made you feel, with anything less than 100% certainty, that everything would turn out okay?

Plinky plink. Plinky plink. And then there’s Catwoman, whose appearance is marked by a campy Hans Zimmer piano motif. Anne Hathaway was the subject of much internet derision when Nolan cast her to play the beautiful and deadly Selina Kyle, and though she easily dispels cursory fanboy criticism, the screenplay has difficulty reconciling her sinister sexiness with the otherwise encompassing gravitas. That Catwoman doesn’t quite gel shouldn’t be too surprising; Nolan has never shown a proclivity for writing great female roles.

Last of the new recruits is Officer Blake, who’s conveniently assigned to every major crime scene in the city. Consequently, we spend a lot of time with a character who, in the context of a nearly three hour film, never feels terribly important. All due respect to JGL. His character arc takes a dramatic, if predictable, turn in the epilogue that fails to justify the surplus of screen time leading up to it.

Each of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. From an action standpoint, The Dark Knight Rises is the pinnacle of the franchise. From the explosive airborne opener to Batman and Bane’s climactic knock-down-drag-out fistfight, it’s easy to overlook the litany of legitimate story and pacing problems it suffers en route. To an extent, those issues are forgivable given that the film is otherwise so clearly superior to the brain-dead blockbusters that presume to call themselves its competition — but online there is enough hyperbole already. “Take the bitter with the better,” as Michael Caine once said.

If The Dark Knight Rises has one glaring flaw, it’s that the conclusion feels insincere. Kudos to Christopher Nolan for taking Bruce Wayne, one of the most beloved and iconic characters in popular culture, to some startlingly dark places. It’s encouraging to see a filmmaker challenge an audience that Hollywood attempts to relentlessly appease. However, the final few minutes feel more like studio-mandated concessions than the cathartic conclusion the epic saga deserves. The audience is inappropriately left with a wink and a nod to what’s next.

But in an age where big screen comic book adaptations cut with safety scissors, that Nolan’s gritty take on Batman exists at all is remarkable. The Dark Knight’s bout with Bane yields some undeniably incredible moments made all the more impressive by the 65mm IMAX camera. If you’re a fan of the franchise (like any of you aren’t), seek out the biggest screen you can find, with the loudest speaker system, sit back and prepare to be pummeled. You’ll love it.