Review: “The Dark Knight Rises”

The most ambitious and seemingly consistent of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy ultimately proves its least engaging. What started with a grounded but still comic-inspired origin tale and continued with a masterfully brazen crime saga ends with a convoluted yet often intriguing societal revolution epic.

While debates will rage over the various issues that plague this final chapter, there’s no question that it mostly works quite well. Nolan avoids the fate of so many superhero franchises before him (ie. Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman, the 90’s Batman films) who follow-up a solid debut and a stellar second entry with a fizzer of third outing. By making this a closing chapter, there’s less of a feeling of sequel-itis – compounded by Nolan taking some big chances with the story’s direction. Even when elements don’t work, and quite a few don’t here, you can’t help but admire the attempts made.

Starting off with an eight year gap between this and the previous film, the continuity delay allows both a resetting of the board’s pieces and an exploration (albeit cursory) of the consequences of the events in the earlier films. Wayne, now a limping recluse, is drawn back into action because some intruder with a gymnastics degree kicked his cane. Cue not one but two long stretches throughout the movie where Bruce has to “get back in the game” after self-imposed retirement the first time, and a brutal beatdown the second. The latter proves the more personal, the more convincingly motivated, and ultimately the more rewarding of the two (thus making much of the first feel redundant).

With a scope and ambition so huge, especially in the second half which bares a similarity to the “No Man’s Land” storyline of the comics (not to mention the French revolution parallels), the logic flaws are more noticeable than ever. Much like “Sherlock” and “Doctor Who” show runner Steven Moffat, the writing of both Nolan brothers blisters along at a cracking pace and with a desperate desire to please you with all its cleverness. Yet it’s also un-involving as everything is surface. A slick, stylish and broadly appealing surface, but that’s all – there’s little to no emotional involvement or more profound truths on offer.

Certain flaws of this trilogy have remained the same throughout its run be it clunky exposition, dubious character motivations, occasionally risible dialogue and/or uneven action sequences. Many love to wax on about the third act problems of “Batman Begins”, easily the most comic-esque of the Nolan’s films, because it’s where said flaws are the most visible in the series. Yet ‘Begins’ also remains the most human of the trilogy, certainly the one with the most satisfying emotional throughline.

As one grows older, especially those of us driven by our own inner demons, one realises that the ultimate goal of life isn’t love, wealth or even happiness – it’s peace of mind. Nolan’s entire filmography deals with this quest – his stories focusing on a man or men desperate to achieve true solace but unable to due to their enslavement to their obsessions (which provide a fleeting contentment of their own).

As ‘Rises’ is a trilogy capper, there are numerous links back to ‘Begins’ throughout which are often inventive. In fact the strongest elements of the film essentially serve as a coda to ‘Begins’ and deliver a fitting conclusion to Wayne’s story. It could only have gone in two directions and Nolan enjoys dancing us between both possibilities right up until the end – ultimately delivering a satisfying and definitive finale.

Full kudos must go to both Christian Bale and Michael Caine for their work. Bale starts the film in the darkest place the character has been yet and must take him through quite an arc, much of it retreading areas he’s already covered. People will nitpick about the time windows (namely the eight year gap and the three month injury recovery periods), but Bale remains the committed steadfast center of this series and sells it – while also getting to enjoy some progression in his character which he didn’t really get in the previous outing.

Michael Caine’s pseudo-father figure also gets a chance to be more than just a sage advice giver. In one of the film’s strongest scenes, Alfred confronts Bruce on his obsession and where it will take him, in the process making a desperate ultimatum fully aware that he’ll likely lose his surrogate son in the process. Caine has only a few scenes this time, but he makes the most out of them and gives this otherwise often quite cold film its few real signs of life.

Faring less well this time are returning champs Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. Both lend stellar support as always, but with so many characters to service they both haven’t much to do this time and what scenes they do have only service the plot in fairly anonymous ways. It’s a similar problem for several of the newcomers including Marion Cotillard and Matthew Modine. Even with certain character revelations amongst the old and new guard to give them a bit more depth, none of them really get a chance to shine aside from Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose subplot gets both adequate time and a proper arc with some rewarding key scenes.

It’s a committed performance from Tom Hardy, but partly due to it being hidden behind a mask and partly due to the character being frustratingly underdone – it doesn’t stand out as one of his strongest. Hardy certainly conveys Bane’s raw brutality and fighting skill, but the patient and intelligent mastermind side of the character is rarely displayed isn’t helped by the choice of what sounds like (at least to me) a geriatric English accent – it may be done for contrast, that still doesn’t make it work any better. The few glimpses we see of a true adversary to Batman aren’t convincing and ultimately he proves to be little more than a skilled thug.

Anne Hathaway is a standout thanks to a decision to try something quite different with the character of Selena Kyle than previous screen interpretations. This Catwoman (though that moniker is never stated by name) is an opportunistic vixen, a thief who thinks on her feet and can quickly adapt. Her loyalty is only to herself and her own survival, but beneath a flirty and amoral exterior hardened by life lies someone who’ll ultimately do right. She dances around the story’s periphery, flitting in and out which is why she remains one of the few that manages to stand on her own as a character.

Adding another level of interest is that she’s also portrayed as someone who is not as good as she thinks she is, though a subplot involving her care of a street kid (Juno Temple) is a waste. Hathaway is quite convincing showcasing her darker side, though her cute girl next door looks mean she lacks the raw sexuality of Michelle Pfeiffer’s now iconic turn in “Batman Returns”. While Pfeiffer’s delicious dark interpretation portrayed Selena as essentially “damaged goods”, Hathaway’s take is more layered and certainly the closest interpretation yet to the character in the comics.

From the ticking clock countdown to the opening aerial stunt, Nolan’s fetish for the James Bond film franchise is more visible than ever here in his style and sensibility (indeed a key element of the narrative seems a direct lift from “The World is Not Enough”). His skill at filming action hasn’t always been his great strength, be it the all too-close fight scenes in ‘Begins’, or the messy choreography of the chase and finale sequences in “The Dark Knight”. Here however he’s able to bring a clearness to the various bursts of adrenaline which results in some strong highlights be it Bane’s reign of destruction, his mano-e-mano sewer fight with Batman, and the nail-biting finale chase.

There’s even a few moments of playfulness and comic relief, but the pervasive tonal seriousness and meticulous attention to detail tends to suck the energy out of the attempted spontaneity. Tech credits from Wally Pfister’s cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s excellent score are, as usual, amongst the best of the year in the industry. It’s a film that cost a small fortune, but it shows be it in the extensive use of practical where possible to the pervasive use of IMAX throughout.

Lacking both the sheer fun and watchability of “Batman Begins” or the tightness and energy of “The Dark Knight”, Nolan nevertheless manages to decently cap off his trilogy thanks to his usual raft of top notch talent around him along with some adventurous risk taking with the story. Pacing is strong throughout, but at 164 minutes the film is in need of trimming.

There’s too many red herrings or unnecessary plot points, political swipes lack any bite, and too many side characters take much needed time away from the key players. It’s constantly self-important, sporadically fascinating and generally entertaining. I quite enjoyed it but, for the first time in this series, I’ve little desire to rush out and see it again even if it is a smarter and more well composed effort than pretty much any other tentpole fare this Summer. Not great, but good enough to ensure the trilogy’s place as one of the strongest film series of modern times.