<b>REVIEW | </b>By Rene Rodriguez McClatchy Newspapers
When people lament the state of American movies, they bemoan the recycled stories and stale conceits, the cookie-cutter plots, the impersonal filmmaking, the lack of artistry and daring in big Hollywood films.
There are exceptions, of course. But most of the serious contemporary American directors have cultivated their audiences and now play primarily to them. Every once in awhile they get lucky with a breakthrough hit, but they’re not necessarily swinging for the fences.
With “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan swings for the moon.
Saddled with the impossible expectations surrounding the final chapter in his trilogy of Batman movies, Nolan surprises by one-upping you. This long, sprawling, layered epic, with the requisite cast of thousands, isn’t “fun” in a traditional summer-popcorn kind of way; it’s heavy.
Opening eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, his body battered and creaky, his alter-ego of Batman no longer needed in Gotham City, where Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has exploited a lie to wage a successful war on organized crime.
Then Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist thug with the build of a wrestler and a life-sustaining mask clamped to his face, emerges from the city’s sewers with an army of followers and a sinister intent. Bane is a warrior for the disenfranchised and the forgotten and the ignored. His methods, though, are brutal and murderous, and his solution to social and economic disparity is of the scorched-earth variety.
Wayne is a billionaire – rich enough to qualify as the 1 percent of Gotham’s 1 percent — which makes him a target for Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a seductive cat burglar whose proclivity for crime is fueled by a sense of entitlement.
“The Dark Knight Rises” borrows key elements from several famed comic-book storylines, most notably “Knightfall,” in which Bane crippled Batman in a fight, and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” in which an aging Batman was forced out of retirement, his body creaking and groaning. But the movie is ultimately less devoted to loving homage and hero worship than to completing the story that started in 2005’s “Batman Begins.”
But Nolan isn’t slavish to the demands of the superhero genre. He doesn’t throw in periodic action beats just to keep the pace from flagging, and he takes a centrist approach to the meaty political and social subtexts of his story, which allows for a variety of readings and interpretations.
This is not the sort of movie you can just leave behind in the theater. And like any true finale to a trilogy, the picture doesn’t work nearly as well if you haven’t seen the previous two installments: It’s not designed to stand alone.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is not without flaws. The story is so busy, some minor roles are given short shrift. For long stretches, the tone is grim even by Nolan’s standards (he has never been a maker of cheerful films). Despite the seriousness of his intent, Nolan is not above relying to comic-book logic and coincidences when he needs them. He’s not immune, either, from the cliche of the ticking time-bomb rapidly counting down to zero.
But in the middle of such a grandly ambitious picture, those things don’t matter. “The Dark Knight Rises” is an uncommonly well-acted summer movie. Bale has grown gracefully into the role of the tormented hero and Hathaway pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of rescuing Selina’s cat mask from kitsch. Hardy, most of his face hidden by a mask, does subtle, wonderful things with his eyes.
For all its pomp and grandeur, though, “The Dark Knight Rises” is practically stolen outright by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, a conscientious police officer who, like Wayne, grew up an orphan.
In one of the best scenes in the movie, Blake tells Wayne about the inexplicable anger he feels in his bones and how he’s learned to hide it by practicing smiling into the mirror. In Gotham City, as in life, everyone sooner or later needs a mask. “The Dark Knight Rises” is, without question, the final chapter in Nolan’s Batman saga. But oh, what a way to do it.
‘The Dark Knight Rises’
CAST: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine
RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes