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Thursday, July 19, 2012

'The Dark Knight Rises' elevates superheroes to operatic heights

BANE OF HIS EXISTENCE: Tom Hardy and Christian Bale
Imaginary zillionaire Bruce Wayne battles with muggers and other bad guys in the guise of caped crusader Batman. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan grapples with the War on Terror and other fraught social issues through the vehicle of his Batman movie trilogy. Culminating with the third installment, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan sets a benchmark for dense, thematically complex films that elevate their premise of guys in crazy costumes fighting each other.

Nolan conceives The Dark Knight Rises as the final act to a single, sprawling narrative, at times to its detriment as a self-contained movie. Rises magnifies some of flaws of the first installment, Batman Begins, with politics and plot logistics that resist comprehension. Rises also presents the final steps of a hero’s moving journey, marked by intricate, spectacular action sequences and a far-reaching vision for both modern society and one of pop culture’s most iconic characters.

The astoundingly popular previous film The Dark Knight ended with Christian Bale’s Batman choosing to take the fall for the crime spree of Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s crusading district attorney turned hideously-scarred madman. Rises begins eight years later, with Gotham enjoying safe streets, Batman M.I.A. and Wayne holed up in his mansion as a Howard Hughes-style recluse.

Gotham’s peaceful status quo explodes with the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked, ripped super-mercenary with a diabolical plan that spans from the city’s sewer tunnels to its boardrooms, from its lowliest citizens to its highest institutions. Affecting a plummy accent worthy of a James Bond villain, Hardy isn’t quite unintelligible, but I look forward to re-watching the film on Blu-Ray with the subtitle function activated.

Bane intends to target Gotham City in general and Batman in particular, but Wayne doesn’t just leave hiding to answer the call of duty. He also sets his eyes on Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a fetching cat burglar with an ideological axe to grind against One Percenters like Wayne. Hathaway may be more girlish than previous actresses who’ve played the role, better known as Catwoman, but she gives a winningly cunning, provocative performance that charges the film with welcome comic relief and sex appeal, despite long stretches off-screen.

As the demands of being Batman require impossible sacrifices, Bale gives his best acting of the trilogy, seeming more comfortable in the bat-cowl and more openly expressive of Wayne’s divided emotions. He brings some unexpected vulnerability to a confrontation with manservant Alfred (Michael Caine, the heart of the series), while sustaining the viewer’s interest through Wayne’s long, intense mid-movie low point. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman still give stalwart supporting work, joined by Marion Cotillard as a sultry financier and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an especially effective turn as a rookie cop who still believes in Batman.

Rises shows off countless thrilling set-pieces from the airborne heist that opens the film to several agonizing Batmano-a-mano fight scenes. Bane makes an intimidating, visually striking antagonist, stronger in both body and willpower than Batman. But even for a superhero movie, Bane’s ultimate mission (which I’ll explore in a later “Spoiler Questions” post) requires more suspension of disbelief than an audience should be required to give. The Dark Knight succeeds so well not just due to the late Heath Ledger’s live-wire performance, but the way the Joker and Harvey Dent so effectively reflect and subvert different aspects of Batman’s identity. Even their most complicated schemes drive the movie forward, where Rises’momentum lurches by comparison.

Rises’ script, co-written by the director and his brother Jonathan Nolan, draws a line connecting the Occupy movement, in the person of Selina, and such bloody historical uprisings as the Reign of Terror: it’s no coincidence that quotes from A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution. Combining rhetorical attacks on economic injustice with imagery of armed tyranny, Rises’ unifying ideology, if it has one, becomes increasingly difficult to unpack.

In all three films Nolan explores both the need for civic institutions to maintain order and their inherent corruptibility, and the filmmaker avoids reconciling that tension. Some social ills, as well as some story problems, defy the best efforts of even Batman to solve. The bravery and resources in making the attempt, at least, prove genuinely heroic.

The Dark Knight Rises. 3 stars. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Stars Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., July 20. At area theaters.

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