'The Dark Knight Rises,' Soars
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"The Dark Knight Rises," director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's final installment in his groundbreaking pop culture trilogy adapted from the "Batman" comic books, is good enough to make you forget your superhero movie fatigue, in the event that you're suffering from such a condition. And even putting genre considerations aside, this is a pretty well-sustained piece of epic moviemaking. I'm not foolhardy enough to compare Nolan to the David Lean of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or the Francis Ford Coppola of "Apocalypse Now," but it's pretty clear that the cinematic canvas Nolan aspires to fill is pretty much that size. I don't wanna damn with faint praise by saying something like "he doesn't disgrace himself in trying to fulfill that ambition." It's honestly too soon to tell just how "The Dark Knight Rises" will fit into the epic movie canon.
But it's a very, very good large-scale action/crime movie with a degree in high technology and a will to make you believe in costumed crime fighters. The action picks up eight years after the end of the last film, "The Dark Knight." Gotham City is largely crime-free, thanks to the subterfuge of Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) and the collusion of Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). But complacency and corruption (partially in the form of a police force up-and-comer played by Matthew Modine, and a few slimy politicos and corporate types) are beginning to bubble under. As events compel a largely reclusive Bruce Wayne to make tentative ventures out into the world at large, a sly cat burglar (the soon-to-be Catwoman, Anne Hathaway) warns the billionaire that "there's a storm coming."
The storm bringer, introduced in a pretty spectacular airplane stunt that serves as the movie's prologue (and which is one of many scenes shot and, in certain theaters, screened in the giant-film IMAX process), is thick-necked, weirdly masked supervillain Bane, whose amplified voice brings to mind Darth Vader crossed with Dr. Strangelove. Let's get this out of the way right away: Excellent as Tom Hardy is in the role, Bane is no Joker. He's just not crazy enough. He's unpleasant as hell, yes, and certainly seemingly undefeatable, but what he represents just doesn't stick in the head the way the Joker's "because I can" anarchic malevolence does. But Heath Ledger, the irreplaceable actor who created the Joker, is dead, which obliges Nolan to take his saga in a Joker-free direction. What are you going to do?
As it happens, Bane has a place in the Nolan/Batman backstory, so break out your Blu-rays of "Batman Begins" before you see this one. The story concocted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, and put into script form by Nolan and David Goyer, is pretty intricate, albeit comic-book blunt a lot of the time. This is particularly the case in charting the ways the moral choices of its characters (which also include a young, Batman-admiring "hothead" cop played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a philanthropist rival-to-Catwoman-love-interest played by Marion Cotillard) affect the larger life of Gotham City. After a series of increasingly eye-popping catastrophes, Gotham is overrun by Bane and his army, who hijack a thermonuclear device and use it as the ultimate directive to Gotham's citizens not to leave town. The characters' choices become, of course, all the more fraught from that point.
The multileveled near-leveling of Gotham -- a hybrid city Nolan cobbles together out of locations shoots in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and other American cities, and assembles into one relatively cohesive whole with staggering effects work -- is convincing enough to be exceptionally disquieting to viewers who might have lived through one urban disaster or another. There are some visuals here that are absolutely awe-inspiring. And these images are wedded to a narrative that's gripping in the most old-fashioned way, really. The film's finale comes down to a scenario/trope that's as old as Fritz Lang's 90-year-old "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler," not to mention the nearly 50-year-old "Goldfinger," not to mention, um, 2008's "The Dark Knight." Again, what are you going to do? Some things just work. And aside from grand-scale nail-biting suspense, and I hope it's not a "spoiler" to say this, but there was more than one "I didn't see that coming" moment, and not to pat myself on the back, I'm usually pretty good at seeing things coming -- derived from long moviegoing experience, not particular prescience or insight, I hasten to add.
As for what's not to love, or why this movie isn't getting a perfect rating? The movie crams in a little more superhero-movie-as-civics-class stuff than I subjectively needed, although I understand how it's kind of crucial to the larger moral thesis Nolan's trying to attach to his story. Call me parochial, but I'm not sure the world actually needs the Tolstoy of the superhero movie, if such a position is even tenable. And while I'm quibbling, the Alfred-and-Lucius-being-concerned-about-Bruce-Wayne's-love-life material doesn't wear well (although Michael Caine's conviction in the stalwart butler role is sufficient to genuinely pull the heartstrings in a crucial scene or two). And that kid singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" isn't just on the nose, it's nose-breaking. On the other hand, while one viewing is scarcely enough to do anything like a shot-by-shot parsing of the action scenes, my own feeling while watching "The Dark Knight Rises" is that a lot of the breakneck editing tendencies that alienated some critics, and helped lead to the coinage of the phrase "chaos cinema," have been tamped down here. The hand-to-hand battles between Batman and Bane have genuine crunch to them and they build well from shot to shot. Which is not inconsiderable, as improvements go.
While prior treatments of the Batman myth in movies have taken at least slightly winking approaches, Nolan's Dark Knight movies get ever more dark and serious with every installment, but even at nearly three hours in length, "The Dark Knight Rises" only rarely starts to tremor under the weight of its own portent, and is not without its own sly humor. Well done.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.