The Dark Knight Rules!
"The Dark Knight Rises"
Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy
Directed by Christopher Nolan
If 2008's "The Dark Knight" raised the bar and set a new standard for how great movies based on costumed comic book heroes can be, then "The Dark Knight Rises" defies the impossible by raising the bar even further. Quite simply, it's that brilliant.
That's saying a lot, since the second Batman installment directed by Christopher Nolan received rave reviews and grossed over $1 billion worldwide. And when it failed to get a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars, the Academy took the unprecedented step of expanding that category so that popular films worthy of being nominated would have a better chance of doing so in the future. Then there's the late great Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for his outstanding performance as the Joker.
Talk about a tough act to follow, but "The Dark Knight Rises" doesn't just follow it; it tops it in almost every way, making it a guaranteed frontrunner for Best Picture. Where most trilogies end on a weak note (witness the likes of "Return of the Jedi" and "Spider-Man 3"), "The Dark Knight Rises" succeeds as an epic triumph that scales the rare heights of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," making it the crowning achievement of the Batman trilogy and the biggest, best, most exciting Batman of them all.
Picking up eight years after the death of both his true love, Rachel Dawes, and the city's idealistic D.A., Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a shadow of his former self. Crime in Gotham City has dropped since the downfall of the Joker and the passing of the Dent Act, so there hasn't been much of a need for Batman anyway. That changes with the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a sinister and powerful terrorist who's on a mission to plunge Gotham into total chaos and anarchy.
Batman emerges from seclusion to stop that from happening, but meets a painful defeat at the hands of Bane. With the clock ticking on Bane's plan to destroy the city, the Dark Knight must rise again, and he'll need all the help he can get. Among those who are on his side: Alfred (Michael Caine), the loyal butler who cared for him since the death of his parents; Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the police commissioner with close ties to Batman; John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a dedicated cop who idolizes Batman; Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the brilliant innovator for Wayne Enterprises; Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), an affluent member of the board at Wayne Enterprises; and finally, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a skilled cat burglar who could turn out to be Batman's biggest ally...or his worst enemy.
The fact that "The Dark Knight Rises" exceeds its incredibly high expectations is due to a number of factors, the first of which is the smart screenplay co-written by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (with a story assist by David S. Goyer). As with Nolan's previous films, "The Dark Knight Rises" is filled with intricate details that require multiple viewings, but there are also numerous references to its predecessors (especially the first installment, 2005's "Batman Begins"), making a refresher course on those movies essential if the new film's many twists and turns are to be fully appreciated.
And while some may feel that Nolan's Batman films took themselves a bit too seriously, the fact is that they are the most grounded of all the movies based on costumed comic book heroes. "The Dark Knight Rises" in particular features a villain who is a terrorist, a story that's set during an economic crisis and images of mass destruction that seem all too real in a post-9/11 world. That's a far cry from the vibrant fun of "The Avengers," in which the villains were aliens from outer space and the heroes were indestructible, but that's also what makes it more intense, exciting and emotionally engaging - especially in IMAX, since a whopping 72 minutes were filmed using the giant IMAX cameras.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is also more of an ensemble piece than its predecessors, and each of the cast members give incredible performances. Christian Bale, who became an Oscar-winner since the release of the last installment (he won Best Supporting Actor for 2010's "The Fighter"), comes full circle with a grueling performance and spends a lot more screen time as Bruce Wayne than in costume as Batman. Returning players Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are also at the top of their game as Alfred, Lucius Fox and Commissioner Gordon, respectively.
But the newcomers make their mark in a very big way, starting with Tom Hardy as the ominous Bane. Between his shaved head and enormous bulk, Hardy's transformation to play Batman's deadliest arch-enemy makes him one of the most terrifying masked villains to grace the big screen (and as for previous reports that his mask distorted his voice beyond comprehension, that appears to have been resolved). Anne Hathaway easily holds her own with a sexy and strong character that is never actually referred to as Catwoman, which helps her stand apart from previous actresses who played the part with scene-chewing verve (like Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer).
And after collaborating with Christopher Nolan on 2010's brilliant mind trip "Inception," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard give fantastic performances - though the less said about them, the better, so as not to spoil the biggest and best surprises of the movie. And despite a slow buildup and an excessive running time of 2 hours and 44 minutes, those surprises help bring "The Dark Knight Rises" to a rousing, unforgettable, emotionally satisfying and chill-inducing conclusion, which further solidifies Nolan as one of the greatest filmmakers working today.
And though it's hard to see how Nolan could top an epic like "The Dark Knight Rises," I wouldn't be surprised if he does it with his very next movie.
Verdict: SEE IT!
-- Scott Mantz
Copyright 2012 by NBC Universal, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.