The Dark Knight Rises Review

By July 19, 2012
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When one sits down to write a “review” of a movie as massive as Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” it’s hard to not wonder what the point actually is. This juggernaut is the very definition of a “critic-proof movie,” and no amount of reviews, (be they floridly passionate or venomously negative,) is going to make much of an impact. Fortunately most critics simply enjoy writing about movies, and boy oh boy, is “The Dark Knight Rises” a mega-massive, powerfully epic action movie/crime story. In other words, it’s pretty damn big. Mr. Nolan and his colleagues at WB and DC seem well aware of the tracks they’ve laid down, and they also seem pretty damn intent on closing their trilogy with a series of big, satisfying bangs.

To say they’ve presented one of the most challenging and grown-up superhero movies would be an understatement. It’s difficult to not simply sit back and throw huge peals of respect towards the quality control of this particular franchise. Let’s not forget: after Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin,” WB and DC had one freakishly fractured property on their hands, but they waited a few years, they hired the right people, and they eventually gave the global Bat-fans a series of movies that challenge the intellect as readily as they tickle the eyeballs. Most superhero movies, even the best ones, are little more than fun flash, with maybe a dash of subtext on the side. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is dark, adult, morally ambiguous, and consistently challenging. Pretty strong praise for a series that could have been a lot like “Blade”: fun, flashy, empty, and more than profitable enough to make everyone happy. Taken a step further, the trilogy represented by “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” may stand as one of the best marriages we’ve ever seen between the art of superhero storytelling and the all-too-necessary “evil” of large-scale commerce.

Here’s all you need to know: Part 3 picks up eight years after Part 2, and Gotham is still feeling the sting from the death of heroic district attorney Harvey Dent. For his part, the loyal commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is keeping all of the dark secrets hidden while a shockingly decrepit Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is holed up like a recluse in his massive mansion. Old friends like Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius (Morgan Freeman) are still around, to a degree, but it’s not until a slinky cat burglar called Selina Kyle enters his life that Bruce Wayne has any interest in revisiting the outside world.

In true comic book movie form, there are still a few bat-supporters scattered across the city, but for the most part our hero has become a cautionary tale to the Gotham citizens: this is what inevitably happens when a man takes the law into his own hands. The loyal audience knows better, of course, for Batman did not murder Harvey Dent and is certainly not a villain. But this reversal this gives Nolan’s screenwriting team plenty of ways to delay Bruce Wayne’s inevitable resurgence as The Dark Knight. The movie, much like its main character, simply boils and stews and percolates until it explodes. Fun stuff.

New to this party are a noble young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a well-intentioned and very wealthy ecologist (Marion Cotillard), the aforementioned burglar (Anne Hathaway, more on her in a minute), and a harrowing new villain: Tom Hardy as Bane, a super-strong and very evil madman who cannot feel pain. Without spoiling any details, let’s just say that Bane has a remarkable amount of success in forcing Gotham to its knees, and the “city under siege” concept is refreshingly different for a superhero movie.

The cast is simply fantastic, with not a false note to be found. The potential silliness of the Bane character (he’s huge and weird and he wears an odd mouthpiece) is tempered by Tom Hardy’s furious eyes and intimidating screen presence; the potential sleaziness of the Catwoman character is solved by making the character plainly smart, effortlessly in command, and yes, sweet, feminine, and sexy. Not only is Hathaway clearly having a ball with the Kyle/Catwoman role, but she also uses every feminine wile in the playbook. Her playful presence is essential, really, because much of “The Dark Knight Rises” is a dark, serious, even somber affair. The always-welcome Joseph Gordon-Levitt also adds a new and essential layer of basic decency to a story that has tons of villains, but very few trustworthy people to speak of.

Also, let’s talk about the skills of Nolan and his casting directors in selecting strong actors for even the smallest roles in the film. All of the new faces in Chapter III are fantastic, and that includes Matthew Modine as a gruff deputy commissioner who butts heads with our beloved Gordon, newcomer Josh Stewart as an enjoyably malicious henchmen, and familiar faces like Brett Briscoe, Juno Temple, Thomas Lennon, and Aidan Gillen, who get a few small moments in a giant movie.

Basically, Bane wants to free Gotham from its own sins, which (in supervillain terms) means that he’s going to kill some good guys (and lots of innocent bystanders) as his plan takes shape, while Batman (and the rest of the various heroes) are trapped somewhere, helpless to do anything. One of the film’s strongest assets is its fluid editorial approach; the flick virtually flies by for something that runs 164 minutes, and the third act is a blissfully merciless series of chases, escapes, and scrapes that culminate in an almost deafening crescendo of intensity. That’s where Nolan truly shines as a filmmaker: action scenes are relatively easy, but being able to make an audience feel stress and tension, even during moments of simple, harried exposition takes a handful of intelligent movie makers. I don’t think anyone could deny that Christopher Nolan and his bat-movie collaborators are intelligent people.

The superhero movie is obviously here to stay, and while most of the releases are content to be simple, shiny, (hopefully) well-made pieces of cinematic diversion, a small handful of these flicks shoot for something more. Nolan’s Bat-movies certainly qualify, and it’s the series’ reliance on grey-area morality, dark themes, a melancholy approach, and the way it presents how people might actually react to having a superhero in their city that makes them so consistently popular. The three films also fit together in some smooth and subtle ways, but I’ll leave all that stuff for the hardcore fans to discover. It’s just cool to see filmmakers calling back to their previous chapters with some sense of logic and restraint.

You’ve probably already bought your ticket for the flick, so let’s just wrap it up like this: big-time spectacle will always be popular, but when you combine spectacle with some challenging ideas, actual intelligence, and a palpable sense of respect for your audience, that’s when you have something special. As it now stands, Nolan’s Batman trilogy has absolutely become something special: a trilogy that respects movie fans and comic book nuts in equal measure, and insists on giving everyone some fascinating food for thought amidst all its crazy costumes and fist fights.

Oh, and make no mistake: this flick has three or four action scenes that will simply kick your ass.

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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.