Nolan's bat opera concludes with complicated, yet satisfying 'Dark Knight Rises'
The debate over whether violent movies inspire real-life violence rages on in the wake of the mass murders last week at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
It's important to remember that the suspect had not actually seen the film, and was not acting out anything specific to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Still, it can't help but color one's view of the way movies in general package violent action as mass entertainment.
Nolan is a master of violent action. Long, chaotic vehicle chases, extreme shootouts, and massive explosions (often all part of the same sequence) are the main reasons Nolan's Batman films bloat up to well past two hours in length (The Dark Knight Rises, clocking in at two hours and 44 minutes, contains all of the above). There are also queasy-making scenes when the villain and his paramilitary thugs bust into crowded public places like the Stock Exchange or a football stadium. But at least in the movie the body count accrues mostly from lawmen and villains fighting each other, not innocent bystanders.
As usual, what's best about this final installment of Nolan's brooding trilogy is the evolution of Batman's personal story. Corrupt officials in Gotham City are trying to defang the anti-crime Dent Law that has been in effect for the eight years since the events of the previous film, The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) sulks in his mansion with a bum knee and a bad attitude; he's given up the batsuit now that everyone believes Batman is a murdering psycho (a ruse he concocted to preserve the heroic image of secretly corrupted DA Harvey Dent in the last film).
But trouble is brewing in the person of Bane (Tom Hardy), heir to the terrorist empire of Ra's al Ghul, who was Bruce Wayne's martial arts mentor, nemesis, and victim back in the first film, Batman Begins. (There's a great density of backstory in this movie, so you have to keep up.) A bald commando with an oxygen mask attached to his face, Bane and his legions plan to free all imprisoned criminals, put the rich on trial, and unleash anarchy in Gotham City—after capturing Batman and making him watch.
The McGuffin at the center of it all is a clean, free energy device that Wayne Industries stopped developing when Bruce learned it could be morphed into a nuclear weapon. Other elements include Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, a sassy cat burglar with a taste for big, fast machines, and Marion Cotillard as a savvy businesswoman who wants Wayne Industries to go green. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as a smart, affable, yet uncompromising young beat cop who rekindles Bruce's tarnished idealism. Best of all is the great Michael Caine, as loyal butler Alfred, who infuses his scenes with wistful warmth and intelligence.
On the downside, Bane is a disappointing villain. Physical prowess he's got, as we see in not one, but two long-winded slugfests with Batman. But his mystical motives for restoring "power to the people," while simultaneously planning to blow the entire city to smithereens remain unclear—as is most of Hardy's dialogue, with that Alien face-hugger plastered over his mouth the whole time. That intense danse macabre between Batman and Heath Ledger's magnificent Joker over the nature of good and evil, hero and villain, avenger and vigilante, is entirely absent here.
Batman's various winged and wheeled vehicles are cool, but watching them careen around endlessly in amped-up CGI chase scenes gets repetitive, while the final charge between Bane's armed mercenaries and a platoon of mad-as-hell cops with nightsticks (they just can't wait to get at each other) is plain foolish.
Still, Bale is worth watching, as Bruce regains the will to rise and restore honor and heroism to the Bat legacy. (There's no question in this installment who the heroes and villains are.) A great kicker, plotwise, surfaces in the final reveal, and a satisfyingcoda resolves some things while leaving others tantalizingly open. Overall, Nolan's bat operas are more thoughtful and complex than most of the genre —if only he would dial back the frenzy a bit so we could appreciate it.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
★★★ (out of four)
With Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Caine. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13. 164 minutes.
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