Nolan co-opts the superhero genre: He plays by its rules and delivers some sensational set pieces, many of them done with old-school practical effects instead of CGI. More than an hour of the film was shot with IMAX cameras, to sensational effect, because Nolan understands showmanship and spectacle, and he uses Hans Zimmer's rousing, restless score to exhilarating effect. Nestled inside this brooding, dark picture is a mandate to entertain.
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.
The film has already been decried as everything from a Republican fantasy to an anti-Romney screed, and it hasn't even opened yet, a testament to how well Nolan achieved his goal. 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, such as the deputy commissioner of Gotham (played by Matthew Modine), who could have been excised entirely from the movie. 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 -- he has never been more commanding or vulnerable in the role -- and Hathaway pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of rescuing Selina's cat mask from kitsch.
Hardy's portrayal of the imperious Bane will invariably be compared to Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as the "Joker," arguably the most iconic performance of the last 20 years. But the comparison is unfair and facile, because the characters could not be more different (or serve more different purposes) and 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. The actor is in many ways the audience surrogate into this strange, complicated story: He's not a hero, he's not yet corrupted or world-weary, and he still believes, perhaps naively, in the infallibility of good.
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 go out.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Rating: PF-13, vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes
Cast: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine.
Director: Christopher Nolan.
Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan.
Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven.
A Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Running time: 165 minutes.
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