The most eagerly-awaited movie of the year, and possibly the most buzzed-about blockbuster in history, is not a disappointment. Director Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” is just a tick below “The Dark Knight,” but it’s a thrilling, expertly put-together film that cements Nolan’s place as the preeminent filmmaker working today.
The final film of Nolan’s heavy, super-dark take on the Batman mythology, “The Dark Knight Rises” is full of strong action sequences, beautiful photography, and some of the best acting of the series. And while the film clocks in at well over two and a half hours, the pacing is handled so well that it never feels slow or sluggish.
Nolan, as he showed in “Inception” and his other two Batman pictures, just plain knows what he’s doing as a filmmaker. He photographs Gotham City noticeably differently than he did in the second film, with a lot more scenes set in daytime and a whole lot of breathtaking urban vistas. Then again, it’s a completely different city- this time New York and Pittsburgh take turns standing in for Gotham, which was obviously, noticeably Chicago in “The Dark Knight.”
“The Dark Knight Rises” is set eight years after the events of the first film. Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, with the Batman persona retired, while crime in Gotham is at an all-time low thanks to a lock-‘em-up law passed in memory of Harvey Dent, who the public still wrongly believes was a hero. However, a musclebound mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) is raising an army underground, with his motives remaining mysterious until well into the film. Also on hand is Selina Kyle/The Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), a jewel thief whose motives are also ambiguous.
Bale, looking noticeably older, gives the same sort of performance as he did in the first two movies- he’s far and away the best Bruce Wayne yet, but still speaks with that odd voice as Batman.
The late Heath Ledger, in “The Dark Knight,” gave one of the greatest villain performances in the history of movies, and while neither Hardy or Hathaway is quite up to that level, they’re both very, very good. Hathaway gives a flirty, sexy performance that’s one of her best turns on screen to date, while Hardy brings the part of Bane a certain gravity that’s very much needed. This movie could’ve easily fallen apart with the wrong guy in the Bane mask.
Bane’s got a breathing mask like Darth Vader, but reminded me even more of a different Vader, the pro wrestling villain of the early ’90s who used that name. Bane is indeed portrayed as more like a WWE heel than a comic book baddie.
And no, despite what Rush Limbaugh would have you believe, Bane is not an allegory for Bain Capital, although I did keep hearing “Bane” and forgetting that it was a person and not a company. I’d say the movie’s politics are idiosyncratic and ultimately centrist- we get a glimpse of both an authoritarian, tough-on-crime-at-the-expense-of-civil-liberties regime, as well as a proletarian revolution that resembles Mao’s reign in China, complete with show trials and executions, and the movie seems to be arguing that neither is a good thing. Then again, making a political statement is clearly not anywhere close to the film’s highest priority.
The film’s third act is its strongest point, which is usually the way Nolan’s films work. The final action sequence is especially incredible, even after the movie already featured four or five that would’ve been the best thing in most superhero films. The score, by Nolan perennial Hans Zimmer, is also a highlight, although at times it’s so dominant in the sound mix that the dialogue is inaudible.
It’s rare for a superhero-themed blockbuster to come together so well in the areas of plot, acting, action and overall filmmaking, but Nolan has now pulled it off three times in a row. Due to the way things work with studio politics and rights, someday there will be another Batman movie, and while I’ll be fascinated to see how a new director pulls it off, it’s hard to imagine them doing it better than Nolan has.
Note: I saw the film in IMAX, and I’d almost recommend against it- there’s just too much going on at any given time to be able to follow it all on a screen that big. However, one of the most praiseworthy things I can say about “The Dark Knight Rises” is that it’s not being shown in 3D in any format.