Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" to the Occasion

First off, for the victims of the mass shooting in Aurora, CO: may they rest in peace, and may their families find peace. Why this kind of horror keeps recurring we’ll never truly understand.


directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, others

As the most intensely anticipated film of the summer, “The Dark Knight Rises” might have been forgiven for buckling under the sheer weight of expectations. Happily, it holds up and delivers a robust and entertaining finale to the trilogy that helped make “reboot” a respectable cinematic term. In fact, for a movie that runs over 160 minutes long it remains remarkably brisk and light on its feet.

While the story picks up eight years after “The Dark Knight,” in both tone and narrative structure “The Dark Knight Rises” is closer to the first movie in the trilogy, “Batman Begins.” This, I hasten to add, is a point in its favor, though I may also be the only person on the planet who preferred “Batman Begins” to “The Dark Knight.” Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for origin stories; maybe it’s because “The Dark Knight” was effectively hijacked by the Joker, and I’m more interested in Batman’s psychological issues than the Joker’s. Heath Ledger’s performance was a brilliant tour de force, but it also sucked up nearly all the energy in “The Dark Knight,” leaving very little for anyone or anything else. Here, the focus returns to Batman, or rather to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who’s forced to revisit his decision to hang up his cape when Gotham’s hard-won stability is shaken by the emergence of a new, literally underground threat. We also see the return of the good ol’ League of Shadows and the specter of its deposed leader, Ras al-Ghul, and even the climactic plot twist of TDKR is somewhat reminiscent of the one in “Batman Begins.” These callbacks to the past help create a general air of mystery and intrigue, even romance, that was absent in the unrelentingly dour “Dark Knight.”

That’s not to say that TDKR doesn’t go to some dark places of its own. It’s a Christopher Nolan movie, after all, and it gives us a hero who’s older, sadder, physically and emotionally handicapped by his last outing as Batman, and at least initially overmatched and outmaneuvered by the villain who draws him out of retirement – the hulking, ferocious, and utterly ruthless Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy). Bane, even more than the Joker, represents Batman’s worst fear: that Gotham will be destroyed on Batman’s watch, and he will be powerless to stop it.

(As a side note, much has been made of the fact that Bane incites – and manipulates – a full-scale class war that begins on the floor of what looks like the NYSE. Personally, notwithstanding Nolan’s pointed nods to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I don’t think there’s any particular political or socioeconomic critique to be read into this mass uprising. Or rather, one reads whatever one brings to it, which is par for the course with Nolan movies – slippery things, all of them.)

One of the pleasant upsides to keeping the spotlight on Batman/Bruce is a nicely shaded, multidimensional performance from Bale. Emerging from a self-imposed exile as a bearded, hobbled recluse, his cleaned-up Bruce Wayne shows flashes of charm that are offset by a long, tormented middle stretch as an incapacitated Batman and his almost hypnotic, single-minded determination to return and rescue Gotham. That drive powers the second half of the movie and overcomes the increasingly larger leaps of logic in a film that from the outset exerts a severe strain on the laws of probability, not to mention physics. (Which, to be fair, does result in some pretty nifty action set pieces.)

The rest of the cast, meanwhile, offers solid support. Among the returning players, Gary Oldman continues in understated mode as Commissioner Gordon, while Michael Caine shows affecting vulnerability as an Alfred who knows this fight may be Batman’s last. Morgan Freeman isn’t given much to do other than twinkle and outfit Batman with wheels and gear, but he performs these functions with panache. The newcomers also hold their own: Hardy undoubtedly has the toughest act in succeeding Ledger’s iconic Joker, but his sheer physical presence - heightened rather than tempered by glimmers of dark wit - renders Bane a formidable foe, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after some initially stiff line readings, cuts an appealing figure as a young cop who allies himself with Batman. As for the love interest, in a James Bond-like turn there are two this time – millionaire philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and master thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Cotillard is fetching as always, but the real revelation here is Hathaway. Her take may be very different from that of Michelle Pfeiffer – still the best Catwoman, hands down – but it’s unexpectedly compelling, especially given the uneven writing of her character. This is the second time Hathaway’s acting chops have surprised me, the first being “Rachel Getting Married”; I suppose I should stop being surprised.

In the end, though, this is really Batman’s show – the grand conclusion of his lifelong identity crisis and his love-hate relationship with Gotham, the city that made him what he is. There’s a tendency among critics to view Batman as a kind of Nietzchean superman; some have even found troubling overtones of fascism in his top-down imposition of law and authority. But Nolan's Batman is a reluctant warrior, driven not by a desire to create his own moral order but by his obsession with the death of his parents – his desire to wipe out the stain of that loss by saving the city that killed them. Of course, one could say the two desires reinforce each other; yet in the end, what we’re left with is not a dictator or a superman, but, to borrow a recurring phrase of the movie, “just a man.” That’s always been the essence of Batman, and “The Dark Knight Rises” simply confirms it.



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