Cue the Boyz II Men -- we've come to the end of the road, as far as director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is concerned. And, after a cumulative seven years of anticipation, "The Dark Knight Rises" goes out with a bang and a whimper.
The strength of "Batman Begins" is its emotional resonance, in "The Dark Knight" it's Heath Ledger's ridiculously engaging villain (not even Bane's brawn can compete with the pencil trick) and the scope and action of "The Dark Knight Rises" is ultimately what makes it undeniably enjoyable. In that vein, all three films piece together to create a cohesive whole -- one's strength leans on the other's weakness, creating balance in portions that are lacking. In fact, you'll want to re-watch the previous two before delving into Nolan's final entry as this last film works best when viewed in relation to the others. Which is why -- as all individual parts of a franchise should ideally be fully-formed -- when exploring this third installment as a standalone, the narrative of "The Dark Knight Rises" crumbles quicker than its predecessors, buckling under the emphasis on its weighty visual splendor.
Although, to be frank: the visual splendor sure is something. Especially in IMAX (which is how you should view the film, wherever possible). The Legendary Pictures-produced "Dark Knight Rises" earns the distinction few movies achieve: despite clocking in at a runtime of 2 hours and 44 minutes, you'll rarely squirm (unless it's in schadenfreude-like delight at certain voice intonations and line deliveries, but we'll get to that later). Nolan has come full-circle in his action directing -- even when you want to throw your hands up while attempting to follow some of the more asinine plot details or swallow the loftier thematics at play, he counters by raising your pulse. "The Dark Knight Rises" is something of a celluloid Medusa -- you can't help but revel in its beauty, but one look will turn your logic to stone. It's a pretty okay way to go.
The film picks up eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight." Having taken the fall for Harvey Dent's death, Batman (Christian Bale) hasn't been seen since, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse and the streets of Gotham are squeaky clean. Enter: Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a jewel thief inexplicably hired by some suits to steal Bruce Wayne's fingerprints. His interest piqued by Kyle's skillset and motives, Wayne drags himself out of exile and puts himself on the case. The suits lead to Bane (Tom Hardy) -- a hulking, one-handed throat-cruncher of a man who makes his home in the sewers beneath the streets of Gotham and recruits orphans who've aged out of housing. We learn he's planning to employ his ranks to formulate an attack that'll raise the underprivileged of Gotham and overthrow its wealthy overlords.
The metaphor at play isn't exactly covert with Wayne being the city's biggest financial advocate of housing for parentless children, as well as a member of the upper echelon. But when Bane storms the Gotham Stock Exchange and Kyle warns Wayne that the have-not's will soon rise up, the whole 99-versus-one-percent thing really swings into gear. It's not like this isn't some relevant stuff -- it's just that a very noble idea is bestowed upon a decidedly evil dude, then gets twisted around (and around) throughout the film, turning victims into villains and vice versa, until the movie seems more an amalgam of unfinished theories than a coherent point made about filling the rift between wealthy and poor (or giving its protagonists and antagonists intelligible goals). By the third act, simple questions of how characters appear in a location, escape a situation or happen upon certain knowledge becomes maddening -- but, blessedly, the action is dually distracting.
The men in the middle, though, are justly accounted for -- namely Joseph Gordon-Levitt as rookie cop John Blake, who works independently through the course of the film to aid Batman in his plight. His arc is the most realized, and his performance breathes youth and zeal into the film. Michael Caine as Alfred delivers some heavy emotional gut-punches on par with his "Batman Begins" "Why do we fall?" speech. His scenes solidly anchor you to the idea that Nolan's epic trilogy is coming to a close. The excellent Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon spends a lengthy amount of time weighed down with the secret knowledge that Batman took the fall for Dent's death, spending the duration of the film attempting to make amends, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is in proper form, insatiable in his attempts to provide our hero with the most suitably badass vehicles within which to dispense justice.
The wonderful Tom Hardy is never quite fully realized in his role as Bane, however. He looks the part, for sure -- massive and terrifying, physically capable, immediately ushering a menacing presence when he walks on-screen. But the voice is a misfire and something sure to be mocked, mimicked and otherwise referred to ad nauseum for months to come. None of the intonations or deliveries match Bane's physical prowess -- at times, to laughable effect.
That'd be fine if it didn't serve as a microcosm for the film's schizophrenic mood. There are a bevy of cheesy, oddly lighthearted asides throughout the film (and not just on Bane's behalf). "The Dark Knight Rises" is privy to more silly one-liners than Nolan's other two Batman films combined, ranging from delightful to distracting. There are moments when it seems odd that a film so massive in scope, portrayed with such a serious bent, sets itself up for zingers and clumsy exclamations. Soundtrack anything to Hans Zimmer's ridiculously on-point, throbbing, adrenaline-inducing score, though, and most of those wounds are quickly cauterized.
Deserving an aside all her own is Selina Kyle. Naysayers of Hathaway's casting in the role (I count myself among them) will be silenced within her first frames. She's magnetic, expertly balancing the desperation of a woman struggling to set her own personal record straight with the cunning of a criminal made thick-skinned in Gotham City's cutthroat world. She may be a well-worn archetype, but Hathaway milks every ounce from it -- and laps it up, for good measure (what, you thought you'd escape this without a cat metaphor?). She wrenches a faceted and charming performance from a character desperately in need of a revamp, and embodies the film's most deeply-felt sigh of relief.
Throughout it all, Nolan's continued fixation on Bruce Wayne over his alter-ego remains resolute, and that's a lucky thing because as Batman, Bale (complete with the voice that launched a thousand throat lozenges) requires the momentum. Especially in "The Dark Knight Rises," our suited-up heroes and villains appear twitchy in their gear, perhaps mirroring the disconnect their director feels between the characters' demons grounded in reality versus their suits' manifestation of said demons into something grander. To boot, the film almost self-consciously throws dialectical jabs during these moments of discomfort -- a guard snorting, "Nice suit" to Hathaway's Selina Kyle when we first see her taking her Catwoman garb for a spin being just one example. There isn't really a reason for Kyle to switch into the figure-cinching bodysuit from the tight black dresses and sleek pant/shirt combos we've seen her kicking ass in previously, but at least she's blessedly never referred to as Catwoman while wearing the thing.
Despite at times proving logically confused and thematically over-ambitious, "The Dark Knight Rises" fits snugly as a rousing cap to the game-changing trilogy made classic through Nolan's eyes. Whether you're led to distraction by the details or swept away by its scope, you'll eventually meet in the same place: one of awe and reverence for a film that delivers its finale with emotion and technical prowess, in spite of its internal frenzy -- much like its protagonist.
"The Dark Knight Rises" opens nationwide this Friday, July 20.