Sunday, July 22, 2012

I Am Batman -- The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

First things first: The Dark Knight Rises isn't as good as The Dark Knight. It contains fewer exciting setpieces and laugh lines, the middle part sags like udders on a cow, and not one soul electrifies the proceedings like Heath Ledger as the Joker. That said, lesser Nolan Batman is still Nolan Batman, and The Dark Knight Rises, for its flaws, clenches the crown of crown of 2012's best blockbuster, and I'm already making plans to see it again.

Reasonably non-spoiler plot synopsis: in the eight years that have passed since Harvey Dent died at the end of The Dark Knight, Gotham City enacted radical new laws that effectively cleaned the streets of organized crime. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has holed up in Wayne Manor as a recluse, despite the pressings of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) to go outside every once in a while. Gotham slips back into the throes of chaos, though, when mercenary and all-around unpleasant guy Bane (Tom Hardy) shows up in town and commandeers a fusion reactor from Wayne Industries CEO Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and board chairman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) with the intent to turn it into a nuclear bomb. At the urging of Gotham cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Wayne must take up his mantel as Batman and fight back against Bane, who holds the city hostage with his makeshift WMD, while also contending with master thief Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway).

What follows is 164 minutes of grim desperation punctuated by brief character moments, exposition, and fleet scenes of action that are over far too quickly. If The Dark Knight wallowed in bleak nihilism, The Dark Knight Rises submerges itself, holds its breath, and has you hold the stopwatch. Carefree entertainment it isn't, and only a rousing climax in the last forty-five minutes and perfect ending (yeah, I said it) save it from being pure misanthropy.

Not to say it isn't fun in places. Batman's newest toy, a hovering battle vehicle that looks like a cross between a harrier and a Maine lobster, zips around lighting up baddies and obstacles, while the Batpod makes a welcome, heavily-armed return. Hathaway's Selena Kyle purrs and snarls sarcastically, and watching her play as a wild card among two opposing sides gave me much joy. Also, the climax I mentioned in the previous paragraph is one of the highlights of the trilogy, providing action-packed thrills and emotional closure for fans who have followed Nolan's Caped Crusader since 2005's Batman Begins.

In fact, The Dark Knight Rises ties in with the first film in several important ways, referencing events and supporting characters with frequency. It feels more like and extension of Batman Begins than a sequel to The Dark Knight, though with more continuity in the story (e.g. no random turns to zombie film-making). Though not my favorite film in the saga, I'm glad The Dark Knight Rises ties into both films so well, making them all an essential and tightly-packed trilogy.

Bale is the strongest he's ever been in any of the Batman films, exuding shades of fatigue, hurt, and mingled amusement unseen by Bruce Wayne thus far. Caine steps up and makes an even bigger emotional impression as Alfred, though he disappears far sooner than I would have liked. Oldman also sits out for an extended length and is given less to do, nodding and acting knowledgeable but always keeping us at arm's length. For my money, the newcomers all give the best performances: Gordon-Levitt's dogged, honest turn as John Blake holds down the fort while Batman is offscreen, Cotillard's enigmatic charm still carries volumes - even if her performance is, beat for beat, Mal from Inception - and Hardy's Bane more closely matches the comic book's take on the character--intelligent, powerful, and not to be trifled with under any circumstances. Also, Hathaway, but we already gushed about her.

Stepping up the apocalyptic stakes are composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, who lend gravitas to the score by adding a Gothic-sounding choir to several choice moments. Though the chugging, one-note motif used for Bane never caught my ears the way past themes have, I appreciate the heightened stakes reflected in the score.

Regular Nolan editor Lee Smith, having hit his stride with Inception's cross-cutting uber-climax, scales his ambition back for The Dark Knight Rises, generally focusing on one scene at a time, though when he does get his plates spinning in time for the endgame, the result is a tense, epic-length juggling act between three different plots as they all come to a head. Not quite as dreamily-presented as past projects, but still exciting even during moments absent of action.

On his absolute best behavior is regular Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, who photographs more and more varied settings than either of the previous films, and makes my favorite Pretty Cinematography shortcut (falling snow) look absolutely gobsmacking. Down in the dumps though The Dark Knight Rises may be, it never looks less than smashing.

The Dark Knight Rises isn't a watershed moment in cinema the way it's been built up to be, but it is absolutely good enough to wrap up one of the most acclaimed film series in the last decade or so. See it once to watch how it ends, then see it again to drink in the small details and widgets of a dense, rewarding auteur picture disguised as a summer tentpole.

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