Friday, July 20, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)

Starring Christian Bale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy
Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 165 Minutes

Eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight," billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lives as a recluse in his mansion outside Gotham City.  Depressed over the loss of his love, and the sacrifice he made as Batman to protect the reputation of Harvey Dent, he hasn't been seen out in public in years.  Every year, Gotham celebrates Harvey Dent Day, the day that Gotham pulled itself together and rid itself of organized crime, galvanized in the wake of Dent's supposed murder at the hands of the Batman.

Wayne Enterprises is faltering.  Bruce sank a ton of money into a mysterious clean energy project which went belly-up, and the board is threatening to kick him.  His only ally is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who believes that risk is part of the game when you need to save the world.

But not all is well in Gotham.  The name on everyone's lips is... Bane.  A masked and ruthless terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy) has allied himself with Gotham business man John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), who has hired career thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) to break into Wayne Manor during the Dent Day celebration and steal Bruce Wayne's fingerprints.  But when Daggett tries to screw Kyle over for her payment, Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), suffering over the guilt of the lies he's built to protect Harvey Dent, leads the chase into Gotham's sewers and discovers Bane.

Gordon barely survives, and begs for the return of the Batman to save Gotham from whatever it is Bane is planning.  He recruits a hot-headed beat cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to be his new right-hand man as he spearheads the investigation into Bane's plans from his hospital room.  Meanwhile, when Batman does make a return appearance, Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley (Matthew Modine) becomes obsessed with capturing him, determined to prove his worth to the mayor for Gordon's job.

But Bane's plans are bigger, more devious, and more insidious than anyone could possibly imagine.  And the Batman will face his greatest threat, an apocalyptic nightmare that could destroy the entire city.  With millions of lives hanging in the balance, Batman will discover just how far he can be pushed, and how much he can give, before he breaks.
It's extremely difficult to write up even a brief synopsis of this film.  It has a ton of characters, and the plot is fairly wide-reaching.  What's fascinating about it is that while it starts out muddled, it in fact slowly whittles down to a needlepoint.  At the climax, when huge revelations come to light, literally everything that has happened before suddenly makes sense.  The first half of the film that feels meandering suddenly becomes clear and you realize exactly how all the pieces come together.

What surprised me the most about the film was its sense of scope.  It's a much larger film than "The Dark Knight" or "Batman Begins."  Certainly, Gotham has been threatened before, but never like this.  "The Dark Knight Rises" is sort of a mashup of two famous storylines from the comics, "Knightfall" and "No Man's Land," the former of which featured Bane attempting to break the Batman, and the second featured Gotham suffering a cataclysm and being cut off from the rest of the country and forced to survive under the rule of villains.  The back half of the film is apocalyptic.  The deserted streets of Gotham are patrolled by Bane's armies, the police are hunted in the streets and sentenced to death in the twisted courts ruled by (I won't spoil this awesome cameo).

By the time the film reaches its glorious and breathless climax, this is the biggest and most epic Batman film yet created.  Its twists and turns are shocking and surprising, its violence brutal and engrossing.  Batman pushes himself, physically, further than any man could expect to, and the moment when Bane breaks him, the audience exploded.  And the third act, all-out war on the streets of Gotham, forces the Batman to come out in the daytime for his final confrontation with Bane.  It's hard to describe how huge this feels.

It's difficult to write much more about the film without giving away a ton of spoilers.  So much of the film is filled with great moments I'd love to talk about but don't want to risk ruining for people.  There are lots of great little things for people who know the Batman mythos.  The film is a huge, sprawling epic, almost more the tale of a city than a superhero.

How does it compare with the other films in the trilogy?  Hard to say.  The film doesn't have anything like Heath Ledger's Joker, who positively commanded the screen every second he was on it.  Does that make "Rises" the lesser film?  I don't know; the two films are very different, even while being very similar.  It's because Joker and Bane are such different villains, they really share no characteristics other than being enemies of the Batman.  So there was almost no chance that Hardy, who is a fine actor in his own right, and so, so good at playing sick, deranged villains, would have quite the impact that Ledger did.  Bane is sort of a lesser-known villain to those who aren't really fans of the comics, while Joker is perhaps the villain most associated with Batman in the public consciousness.  I recall being asked a couple times around "Batman Begins" who Ra's al Ghul and Scarecrow were, and again now about Bane, but no one asked about the Joker.

Still, Bane makes a fine villain here.  Talking through that mask makes him difficult to understand at times; his dialogue can get lost in a mixture of Hardy's accent and whatever background noise is going on at the time.  I'd say that I could easily understand about three quarters of what Bane said; the rest I had to infer from his actions.  I'd like to watch the film with subtitles or read the script to figure out the rest.  It's unfortunate that I have to knock a couple points off the film for this, because Hardy gets some great lines in, and he imbues Bane with a sort of showmanship that's darkly fun and quite interesting.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove himself one of the better young actors working today, and gets a great deal of screentime as Blake.  He ends up being a sort of an ethical compass for Batman and Gordon, people he idolized when he was younger but now feels have let him down or betrayed the ideals he thought they represented.

Anne Hathaway makes a big impression as Selina Kyle.  She's sexy and smart, and the way she plays with the men around her is great to watch.  As a character, Selina gets some great moments.  This isn't the slinky, meowing Catwoman the mainstream expects, having been subjected to the bizarre (albeit popular) interpretations of the 1960s TV series or the Michelle Pfeiffer take in the early 90s.  No, this woman is a thief, one who is talented and supremely confident in that talent, but also a woman who is desperate for something else than what she does.  It's much closer to Selina's portrayals in the comics or the animated series than has ever been put on screen.  She kicks a ton of ass, and she has the coolest high heels you'll ever see.

"The Dark Knight" focused heavily on the public's response in the face of terrorism, whether we would maintain our morality and democracy while under attack.  "The Dark Knight Rises" plays upon the divide between the rich and the poor as Bane manipulates the people of Gotham into attacking the city's wealthier citizens.  With Occupy movements and protests, the images seem especially powerful as the poor ransack the rich, tearing up high-rise apartments, smashing priceless heirlooms... and dragging victims through the streets.

Christopher Nolan has created a fantastic trilogy of Batman films.  They're larger than just superhero films; Batman is just one aspect of a sprawling, epic tale of Gotham City and the men and women who will either protect it or tear it down.  Gotham is a place where humanity holds on, and struggles, even through the darkest of times, to continue hoping.  Outside forces continually try to break Gotham and its people, but some of those people stand up as heroes and symbols.

"The Dark Knight Rises" takes a little while to ramp up, but like a locomotive, once it picks up steam, it's almost impossible to stop.