Thursday, July 19, 2012
Christopher Nolan's Batman saga comes to an epic conclusion with "The Dark Knight Rises" (opening July 20 throughout San Diego). Spoiler-free review follows.
Christopher Nolan is one of the filmmakers -- along with Sam Raimi and Guillermo Del Toro -- who helped raise the level of expectations about comic book adaptations. These guys weren't making comic book movies, they were making movies about stories and characters they loved that just happen to come from comic books.
Back in 2000, there was talk of making "Batman Year One," based on the Batman comics co-written by Frank Miller and serving up a darker vision of the caped crusader created by Bob Kane in 1939. That production stalled but the collected comics known as Batman Year One still provided inspiration for what transformed in Batman Begins. The 2005 film rebooted the "Batman" franchise and gave us an origin story, showing us how Bruce Wayne became the Dark Knight. In 2008, Nolan delivered "The Dark Knight" and kicked up the comic book genre yet another notch. Both of Nolan's films were a very long way from the delightfully cheesy “Batman” of the 60s TV show with Adam West, and different too from Bob Kane’s 1939 creation. Nolan continues to darken the tone with his final installment in his Batman saga, "The Dark Knight Rises."
Nolan seems less the fanboy than Del Toro or Raimi. His comic book adaptation looks very much like a respectable Hollywood drama – just one with some kick ass action and a leading man in a cape. It's always refreshing to see a director tackle a comic book with the intent of elevating the genre rather than with a sense of condescension. So this final installment has an epic scale and feel, and makes you feel like you have been on a long journey with this character and his struggle with what it means to be a hero.
In "The Dark Knight Rises," one character talks about revenge and a slow knife that is patient for satisfaction. That describes Nolan as well. He may not be seeking revenge but "The Dark Knight Rises" reveals that he's had a plan in place from the beginning and he didn't care if anybody understood what he was doing. Seeing this final film makes you appreciate the careful planning that has gone into this extensive story arc spanning more than half a decade of production. There are things laid out in "Batman Begins" that only pay off now in "The Dark Knight Rises," and that's nice and satisfying.
I know that before I went to see "The Dark Knight," I avoided seeing any footage or reading anything that might give too much away. So I respect the fact that people may not want to know too much. But here are the basics that were already laid out in the trailers. It's been 8 years since "The Dark Knight" ended with Batman fleeing the scene of Harvey Dent's death. Gotham is enjoying an upswing after the dark days before Dent's campaign to clean up the city. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) have both pretty much disappeared from the scene, and Commissioner Gordon (the always great Gary Oldman) is trying to maintain law and order as well as the burdensome lie that Batman was responsible for Dent's demise. But as the trailer suggests, a storm is coming, more like a hurricane in fact and it's name is Bane (an imposing Tom Hardy). Selena/Cat Woman (Anne Hathaway) gets thrown in to offset the testosterone as does Miranda (Marion Cotillard). Returning are Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine), and new is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). And that's all I'll say.
The film clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes but doesn't feel like it. It's heavier on exposition than "The Dark Knight" but then maybe that's because there's no explaining the Joker and Bane, and his accompanying storm require a little more clarification. There's definitely a sense of tapping into current real world uncertainties and anxieties, and the story goes dark before we see any light. Nolan teams once again with David S. Goyer on the screenplay, which only falters toward the end. I felt shortchanged but the final showdown and the multiple endings are just a little too neat and cute, and don't match what comes before. Ending the film a few shots earlier than it does would have made a huge difference to me.
The acting is almost all top-notch. We get some surprise returns that are quite enjoyable, plus all the regulars that have proven their worth in the previous two films, especially Oldman, Freeman, and Caine. I love the new addition of Gordon-Levitt, he has a hardened idealism and fresh energy that's a nice contrast to the more battle weary characters. Bale is solid as Batman and Wayne, and seems to have toned down the Batman voice. Of course the most exciting new addition is Tom Hardy as Bane. Hardy, who probably won the role based on his performance in "Bronson," is a force to be reckoned with as Bane. I've heard he's not that tall an actor but in the film he feels like he's a massive, menacing mountain of a man. He's not as much fun a villain as Heath Ledger's Joker, but he is a formidable opponent and riveting on screen. Hidden for almost the entire film behind a mask, Hardy still delivers a forceful performance.
The only casting that annoys me is Anne Hathaway as Cat Woman. I will confess to not liking her as an actress to begin with so you can take my criticism with a grain of salt. Cat Woman needs to be dangerous and sexy and Hathaway is more adorable and cute. Cat Woman also needs to have a certain maturity and to have gone through some rough times; Hathaway still acts young and privileged. She may look nice and lanky in her black kitty suit but I just don't buy her as Cat Woman. She's also unconvincing at the action. It doesn't help that the part is underwritten as well. There's not much to her and Hathaway can't fill in the gaps. She strikes me more as Hello Kitty Girl than Cat Woman but she's not bad enough to ruin the film. Hopefully, Nolan was only joking when he said Cat Woman deserved her own franchise. Each time Hathaway came on I kept thinking what it would have been like if Michelle Rodriguez or Asia Argento (both of whom would have a more interesting physicality for the part) or (here's a wildly eccentric choice) Tilda Swinton had taken on the role -- any of them would have been more interesting to me. But then Nolan doesn't have a knack for female casting as he does for males. The women are always the weakest links in his film -- Katie Holmes in "Batman Begins" and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "The Dark Knight" were okay but unexciting.
Nolan is not really an action direction, so there's not the kind of action that takes your breath away as you would find in Hong Kong films but then Nolan's films demand something more rooted in the real world. The much publicized and discussed fight between Batman and Bane is very much a hand-to-hand combat style of in your face fighting. It's grueling and painful. The effects, with the exception of the scene at the football stadium, are impressive and I am looking forward to seeing the film a second time on a genuine IMAX screen.
"The Dark Knight Rises" (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language) brings the Batman saga to a fitting and satisfying conclusion. "The Dark Knight" is still my favorite film of the trilogy, probably because of Heath Ledger's performance. But "The Dark Knight Rises" returns the saga to Batman (the Joker kind of stole it from him in the previous film) and to his struggles and choices. Kudos to Nolan for having the vision to imagine these 3 films as one story, and to meticulously plan and execute them. It's quite an achievement, and he invests his comic book story with some genuine weight, emotion, and intriguing themes about what it means to be a hero, super or merely human.