Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises— But Does He Fall?

It has been eight long years since Batman vanished into the night, turning, in that instant, from hero to fugitive. Assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent, the Dark Knight sacrificed everything for what he and Commissioner Gordon both hoped was the greater good. For a time the lie worked, as criminal activity in Gotham City was crushed under the weight of the anti-crime Dent Act. But everything will change with the arrival of a cunning cat burglar with a mysterious agenda. Far more dangerous, however, is the emergence of Bane, a masked terrorist whose ruthless plans for Gotham drive Bruce out of his self-imposed exile. But even if he dons the cape and cowl again, Batman may be no match for Bane.

Early in The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan's epic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, the ever-loyal Alfred Pennyworth confronts a crippled, withdrawn Bruce Wayne who has been living like a recluse in Wayne Manor since he gave up the Bat cape eight years earlier. "You're not living," Alfred says to him emotionally. "You're just waiting for something bad to happen." Then something bad— unbelievably bad— does happen in the form of the brutal and sadistic Bane who has come to a peaceful Gotham City to lead his own devious, evil version of the Occupy Movement, a revolution against the city's wealthy and powerful. Oh, and by the way he's brought an entire army of viscious killers, mindless terrorists and mercenaries with him. Alfred's worst fear comes true: the Batman will return to the streets for what, given the power of Bane... this may be his last battle.

Make no mistake about it, The Dark Knight Rises is a spectacular film, especially when one stops to consider the unprecedented performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker [The Dark Knight] looming over the film's success. But I believe that Nolan is a genius when it comes to telling a story and in The Dark Knight Rises, he DOES NOT disappoint. The visuals are extraordinary. The action sequences are dazzling, especially so since Nolan is "old school" and uses very little CGI— but relies instead on good old-fashioned stunt work. It will be hard to shake some of the images, whether it's the stunning midair plane hijacking that opens the film, Batman tooling through Gotham on his exceedlingly spectacular "toys"... or Bane blowing up a stadium during an NFL game. Kudos to ex-Steeler Hines Ward who makes the scene shockingly frightening as he runs for his very life.

But the real power of this final chapter is just how intelligently it melds references to and commentary on modern concerns while staying true to his comic book/graphic novel roots and including those touches and subtle nuances that diehards love... like the addition of Selina Kyle (the Catwoman, although she's never called that) to the cast of characters. Nolan and his brother Jonathan, a frequent collaborator, have written an audacious take on the Batman myth that draws from elements of Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, Dark Knight, and from the Bane-driven Knightfall series from the mid-1990s without copying them. They touch on real world fears of terrorism, collapsing economies and domestic extremism. Underlying the whole script is the greatest terror of all: that, someday, everything in our lives will spin completely out of control. "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," Kyle purrs at one point. "You and your friends better batten down the hatches, 'cause when it hits, you're gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

To lay out the storyline in too much detail dances on the edge of spoiler, given the significant number of twists, turns and surprises Nolan tosses in along the way. He never cheats, including enough clues to what's coming that nothing really comes completely out of left field. While I must say once again... there is no performance quite as wondrous as the late Heath Ledger's as the Joker— the cast's work is sterling from the A-List stars to the even the barely credited actors/actresses. Christian Bale was great as the Batman in the first two films but if it is at all humanly possible [and it obviously is]— he is even better in this film, adding nuance and shading that wasn't there before. Anne Hathaway provides some badly-needed zest and sarcastic wit (she gets most of the good lines) as Kyle. "Dark Knight" veterans Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucien Fox) and Michael Caine (Alfred) are at the top of their games as one would expect.

Tom Hardy has the most difficult role as Bane since he was asked to speak all of his lines through a mask that makes him sound like Darth Vader without the heavy breathing. Even with this hurdle, he still manages to project a feeling that Bane may not be the completely mindless brute he appears to be. Keep an eye on the luminous Marion Cotillard (Inception, Midnight In Paris) who provides just the right measure of allure, smarts and mystery as wealthy philanthropist Miranda Tate. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a wonderful performance as young police officer John Blake, who plays a massive role in the film. Clocking in at two hours and forty-five minutes— it is an extremely emotionally and intelectually draining film and you may find yourself yearning for an oxygen mask... but even the ride doesn't keep Nolan's Dark Knight Rises from being a superb bit of work from a truly visionary filmmaker and a marvelous final installment on a grand retelling of the Batman saga. What a masterpiece Nolan has created... see it on July 20th in iMAX theaters. If you don't, trust me, the thrill of the experience will be lost on DVD/Blu-ray.

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