Sunday, 22 July 2012

Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Certificate: 12A (intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language)
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
Budget: $250 million
Runtime: 164 minutes
Trailer: Watch

The bar that Nolan set with The Dark Knight was so high that there was always the risk that he could become a victim of his own success. In hushed voices people doubted if The Dark Knight Rises would ever be able to hurdle it. Specifically, topping the intensity displayed by Heath Ledger's Joker was always going to be a tall order, and certainly it hasn't been done here. Indeed, the comparisons were always inevitable. But The Dark Knight was one of those rare movie events, the kind of film that doesn't come around often which makes any measurement against it somewhat unyielding. Trilogies are also a notoriously difficult thing to nail, but if there's one man you'd want at the helm it's Christopher Nolan, a man who has yet to make a truly terrible film. And with that, one can safely say that The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most fitting conclusions to a trilogy ever made.

Eight years after the Joker brought a little anarchy to Gotham, the city is at peace and Bruce Wayne (Bale) lives as a recluse within the confines of Wayne Manor. But when cat burglar Selina Kyle (Hathaway) spurs Bruce into donning the mask and cape again he soon unearths a fire rising beneath the streets of Gotham, stoked by a gas mask wearing radical named Bane (Hardy).

In true Nolan fashion, The Dark Knight Rises is very much a film of our time. The stakes are even more portentous where if you thought the Joker's plot was audacious, you haven't seen anything yet. Maniac Bane brands himself as champion of the disenfranchised, issuing a call to arms not to the criminals of Gotham, but to the '99%' lingering in economic recession to take back from those who have exploited them. But this is a smokescreen, a game of shadows masking a far more nefarious plot to tear Gotham apart. The Dark Knight Rises' themes are certainly interesting, raising issues of bankers, occupiers, vengeance and lost hope on an epic and personal scale, and it is these things which you will probably take most from the film. This is a bleak and wholly realistic apocalyptic scenario, something almost tangible in a mirror image to our world. Where the Joker sought to highlight the perennial battle between chaos and order, Bane's plan is much more controlled and purposeful, even simple in its execution. He instigates a battle between the haves and the have nots, playing on inherent systemic unfairness and the uprooting of established models. This is about revolution; a war between existential concepts rather than the fundamentals of the universe.

Bane might not be as iconic as the Joker, or even as nuanced as Heath Ledger's portrayal, but he is nonetheless a memorable villain who demands attention. And while at least you could understand what came out the the Joker's mouth, there's something equally disconcerting and pernicious about the garble emanating through his morphine-pumping Darth Vader costume. But then his sheer physicality does most of the talking for him. Certainly, he is the only villain in the trilogy who ever looks like he might break the Bat, making the caped crusader look fallible, weak, and with that the situation hopeless. In many ways his battle with Batman is just as enthralling as the Dark Knight's brush with the Joker. While a notch below the cerebral out-smarting and counter out-smarting battle of wits with the psychopathic clown, Bane's braun and simplistic eloquence in setting off an unstoppable chain reaction of events poses a different, yet equally fascinating challenge for Batman. Even if the idea of two burly men in pantomime costumes shouting at each other in ridiculous voices should strike one as hysterical.

The contrast between Wayne and Bane is stark. Bruce is the crippled beast that wanders his empty castle without cause or purpose, trapped in a body battered by years of crime fighting. Having lost the love of his life, there is a strong sense that Bruce's journey of channeling his rage into becoming justice incarnate has regressed to the directionless adolescent harbouring uncontrollable grief and rage we met at the beginning of Batman Begins. He believes in nothing anymore, a fact he's consistently reminded of by his conscience, Alfred (Caine). Bruce is concerned only for his own affliction, unlike his parents, who as board member of Wayne Enterprises Miranda Tate (Cotillard) puts it, "invested in the world" through their philanthropic pursuits. The years have left him soft, in the same privileged bracket of the 1% Bane seeks to usurp where his over reliance on technology and bat gadgets prove no match for the masked lunatic. In order to beat Bane, Bruce must first go through the same initiation of the man "born and raised in hell on Earth" (or a pit prison halfway around the world if you will). But this isn't merely for the purpose of a Rocky training montage, slumming it by training in primeval conditions in order to physically harden up; this is very much a spiritual journey which reinvigorates his belief and ethical obligations, ultimately bringing the trilogy full circle.

Bale pulls off the troubled Bruce Wayne masterfully, embodying the tragic tale of a man born with everything yet trapped within the darkest recesses of his own mind. But as much as there is a focus on Bruce's story, The Dark Knight Rises features many other wonderfully character driven plot strands. In particular Anne Hathaway is superb, and any fears surrounding the inclusion of 'Catwoman' (never referred to as such here) are quickly laid to rest. Selina Kyle is introduced in such a delectable manner that you wonder why there was any grumbling in the first place. She effortlessly oozes sex appeal without ever meaning to, her ambiguous motivations making her one of the most intriguing characters in the film. Likewise, there is an incredible amount of time spent on rookie cop John Blake (Gordon-Levit). Displaying similar levels of integrity and fortitude to Commissioner Gordon (Oldman), The Dark Knight Rises actually threatens to become more his story, making a compelling point that DC might do well to make a new spin-off trilogy based purely on him. Michael Caine's Alfred is also given some meaty material, delivered with incredible heart as he imparts the hopes and dreams he once had for his effective adopted son.

If there's any criticism to be had here then perhaps at two-hours forty-minutes The Dark Knight Rises does get nebulous in places.  There's so many plots and sub-plots going on that proceedings slow down about halfway through. Also, similarly to The Amazing Spider-Man, this might be one of the few superhero films which barely features a superhero. Certainly Batman's screen time is less than in Begins or the Dark Knight, but then this is a film which thrives more on the expositions of its characters rather than its action. This also shows, where apart from the American football scene we saw in the trailer its action sequences are perhaps not as spectacular as we've seen before.

None of this however stops this being one of the most satisfying climaxes to a movie trilogy ever put to film. Indeed, Nolan's Batman will be cemented for some time as the best superhero series ever. The Dark Knight Rises is a wrought, emotional epic which is complimented perfectly with Hans Zimmer's exhorting musical score. As bat-fans we have truly witnessed something very impressive over the last seven years. This has been a remarkable series combining spectacle with equally engaging character-driven exposition, delivered in such a delightfully understated manner with style and aplomb. It's just such a shame the legend has to end.