Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

You know what's a great feeling? Walking into a movie knowing you're going to be coming out of the theater with a new favorite on your list. Such were my feelings walking into The Dark Knight Rises. I'd been pumped about this film ever since the credits rolled in 2008 on The Dark Knight. I didn't see how the conclusion to this stunning trilogy could possibly be a letdown and consequently let my expectations soar unimaginably and almost unattainably high; just to see if Nolan could do it again.

And Holy Toledo, did he.

The film opens on a Gotham that's largely recovered from the municipal carnage that took place in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It's 8 years later, and both of Bruce Wayne's alter egos have gone into seclusion. But as the trailers are so fond of reminding us with that oft-used sound bite, "There's a storm coming Mr. Wayne."



Christopher Nolan is without peer, as a director. Go look at his Rotten Tomatoes page. His lowest credit is in the mid 70s; everything else he's touched as director, producer, what have you has been box office gold and critically hailed; even his first major short film Following recouped its modest budget to the tune of almost 8 times over. The man is a modern Midas and it's little wonder. He is a master craftsman when it comes to the art and discipline of film making and The Dark Knight Rises is just more proof on top of existing fact. The film opens much in the way The Dark Knight does, introducing just a blueprint of the plot and the main villain. From there, it's a solid 20 to 30 minutes before the action even really gets going again, yet it doesn't drag in the slightest. Nolan builds an unnerving sense of placidity, a true calm before the storm, that brilliantly reflects Gotham City's placement in the scheme of events. Even in the lighter passages of the opening moments of the film, there's an undeniable presence of growing menace; the only way it could be more palpable is if there were big block letters across the screen flashing "THINGS ARE ABOUT TO GET MUCH WORSE." And of course they do, in a brilliantly satisfying way.

All the regulars are here: Christian Bale as the titular character, Michael Caine as his trusty butler, Morgan Freeman as his 'gadget guy' Lucius Fox, and of course the inimitable Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. Rounding out the cast is a set of newcomers that brilliantly add more depth to a familiar world. Anne Hathaway is Selina Kyle, who most will recognize as Catwoman. Her portrayal as the sly but secretly vulnerable anti-heroine is spot on. She coos most of her dialogue in a seductive cadence, and occasionally offers out a vaguely campy line for effect. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is John Blake, a straight shooting if haunted cop with a past that mirrors Wayne's own. Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a Wayne Enterprises board member with a bit of a thing for Bruce. And, of course, the mountain-of-a-man Tom Hardy is the arch-villain Bane. Hardy is a marvelous actor, with The Dark Knight Rises being further evidence of his talent. With nearly his entire face obscured by his mask, he still manages to convey subtlety and precision. And he does so without the use of wild gesticulations; his voice aside, it's all in his eyes, his stance, and occasionally a stray gesture or two.

Nolan's selection in casting further reflects his abilities as a director. As the film plays out, the cast of characters ends up getting separated and reunited in various ways. And with so many characters to keep track of, it could have been very easy to lose track of who's where and why's what when and with whom and all that jazz. But each characterization is so genuine and committed, and likewise Nolan's direction is so measured and precise, not a moment of screen time is wasted and not a jot of the plot is lost in the action.

And speaking of action, The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly pays off in this department as well. The fight scenes here are just brutal. They're not gory or bloody or anything like that, but there's an element of pure brawl that goes into the conflict of this film. Much of that is due to Bane's nature as a kind of human wall capable of dishing out so much pure punchy pain you almost admire him. During Bane's first fight with our hero, he does what so many fanboys have suspected he would; he breaks the bat. Crushing Batman's helmet, he then holds him high over his head (just like in the comic), and brings him down on his knee; breaking his spine. It's tough to watch, but the scene is so expertly crafted. There's no score involved, just the sound of a waterfall echoing in the subterranean cavern and the crunch of fist and flesh on bone and Bane and Batman. It's profoundly visceral.

As with any franchise, each time the audience returns to the story there has to be something new. In most ways it has to be bigger - so Hollywood logic goes - and of course this presents the problem of running out of steam and being left to toss gimmicks at the audience to keep them interested. So with Batman Begins chronicling the caped crusader's fight against the League of Shadows/Scarecrow and his horror-movie nerve gas, and The Dark Knight offering one of the most iconic villains in the Joker and some absolutely jaw-dropping chase sequences, the only logical way to top that would be to...I don't know...stage a war in Gotham's streets, right? That's exactly what happens, and by the beef on Tom Hardy's body it's awesome. In the film's climactic final act, the citizens and mercenaries rallied to Bane's side and the cops of Gotham literally charge down the street at each other; medieval style! And in the midst of the chaos, Batman and Bane carry out their own War of the Punches.

Hans Zimmer's score is back in force, as always, to remind us that apparently no one does heroic symphonic music better than he can. All the familiar motifs from the previous films reappear in The Dark Knight Rises, in addition to some new ones. This one is a bit more percussion oriented than the previous two, but that too goes right along with the overall feeling of deep impact film making employed here.


In the first five minutes of the movie, Bane's voice sounds completely ridiculous; like a 13 year old whose voice keeps cracking while muffled under his hand. During these opening moments, I feared that the entire operation might be derailed by this, but either I got completely used to it or they somehow managed to change the resonance the next time the character appears on screen. A close call, but one that had me thoroughly distraught for about 5 to 10 minutes.

Nolan has largely managed to keep his films free of self-referential camp, and that's a good thing. With that in mind, there were one or two lines of dialogue that felt like necessary evils. At one point Bane says "You came back to die with your city." To which Batman growls. "No. I came back to stop you." THEY FIGHT. It teeters on the brink of all-too-familiar "comic book trash talk" like that once or twice. Not wholly enough to discredit the entire operation, but just enough for me to roll my eyes a few times. There are a couple of cliches in the affair that I could have done without.

Another Bane-related minor gripe is that his voice mixes strangely with the rest of the film. Almost as if he's doing a live ADR voice-over of his lines. This is likely due to fans who claimed his dialogue was indecipherable in the trailers. I didn't have a problem understanding him in the trailer, didn't have a problem understanding him in the film, though a few critics are still bemoaning that point. So it seems that in an attempt to reach out to fans, the sound mixing on The Dark Knight Rises was hastily reconstructed in the weeks leading up to release. It's strangely overpowering; as if his voice is coming from the speakers themselves rather than the film. But it didn't bother me for very long, and I still blame texting teens for the "Bane's voice is hard to understand" campaign.


Everything I hoped it would be and more, really. Nolan has taken his time with this franchise and it's paid off handsomely. I remember going with my parents to see Batman Begins in 2005 and thinking that this was like a new kind of superhero movie; stunningly realistic and genuine, but still full of big budget visual effects and spectacle. And over the course of almost 8 years and 3 films, Nolan has managed to maintain that unique sense of direction for the entire franchise. The movie's themselves are long - this latest one clocking in at almost three hours. Yet not a moment of screen time feels like filler or padding; everything on screen serves to move the story forward with a measure of precise pacing you could set your watch by.

The hype surrounding this film is well-deserved, and while there will undoubtedly be detractors (there always are) my hope is that The Dark Knight Rises will go on to set and break box office records because it's the kind of film that deserves that kind of critical and financial recognition. The performances are dead on, the visual effects are thrilling, the action sequences full of adrenaline and emotion, and the few twists along the way are as satisfying as vintage M. Night Shyamalan.

I'd like to say that a part of me regrets that the trilogy is completed; that I'm sad to leave it behind. But I'm surprised to say that I'm not. Nolan has expertly crafted a specific set of films that follow a logic and narrative so uniquely their own that here, at the conclusion, we're treated to a satisfying sense of closure rather than a post-credits promise of bigger and bolder things to come. The tagline for the film, "The legend ends," is perfect in every sense. It communicates exactly what the film's ultimate aim is and it implies that we will feel happy to reach the conclusion, rather than regretful. The legend has ended, and it was a glorious end; one truly worthy of the reputation constructed over the course of the two films leading up to it.

Cheers, Mr. Nolan. My hat is off to you.

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