Review: The Dark Knight Rises – bleak, slow, glorious

Posted at 07/19/2012 10:41 PM | Updated as of 07/23/2012 5:01 PM

Warning: Contains spoilers

MANILA, Philippines - Batten down the hatches, Bat-fans, “The Dark Knight Rises” is black, bleak and strangely beautiful - a fitting end to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It’s a movie of fits and starts, of seemingly heavy themes, lots of speechifying and the best final 10 minutes to a summer blockbuster.

It’s also clearly an ending: its apocalyptic third act finishes with a ballsy flourish that’s less a comic book finale and more how a superhero story should end. Cue the applause at curtain’s end and an explosion of Dark Knight 4 fan fiction.

My only warning: At nearly 3 hours, this movie sometimes feels too long and a little joyless before that glorious, wondrous ending.

Recap

But first, a recap: Nolan’s Batman trilogy started with a young Bruce Wayne seeing his parents killed and embarking on a quest to become a symbol of fear against criminals.

The first movie dealt with Batman’s training with the League of Shadows, the building of his arsenal and killing his own mentor.

The second movie dealt with sacrifice: how he defeats a super-villain that fed on anarchy and what Batman gives up to win his war on crime.

In this third movie, Nolan weaves plot threads in the first 2 movies to complete the arc. “The Dark Knight Rises” happens 8 years since Batman has been blamed for the death of Harvey Dent (Two-Face in the last movie), which led to the passage of stricter anti-crime laws in Gotham City.

It’s Batman’s dream of a crime-free Gotham but one with a heavy price. Bruce Wayne is now a recluse, Commissioner Gordon is weighted down by compromise while Gotham celebrates peacetime - the calm before the storm. 

Signs of the storm are there at the beginning. An opening scene where Bane kidnaps a scientist mid-air bests every Bond-action trick in the book. Later, a terrorist attack on the Gotham Stock Exchange draws out Batman from retirement and leads to the inevitable confrontation between him and Bane.

Too long on speeches

What’s strange about this movie is how curiously antiseptic and slow it gets. It’s moody and violent but a little too long on speeches, from Batman, Commissioner Gordon and even Alfred.

Bane is the worst offender, which is doubly bad because his dialogue is clearly overdubbed and sounds as if it’s coming from another room. And while we do root for the characters, there’s too much exposition that renders the action inert when it should just keep moving.

As the villain, Bane (Tom Hardy) is a brutal, muscle-bound terrorist with a mask that echoes the Predator alien and a plan to break the Batman and Gotham City. His scheme echoes both the Occupy Movement and al Qaeda.

Hardy (Bronson, Inception) has always been a fine actor but it’s hard to empathize with a character that’s always hidden behind a mask. Curiously, a third act twist made me realize he’s just a slightly fleshed-out, talky version of the same Bane character in Batman and Robin, the one with George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Anne Hathaway as cat burglar Selina Kyle fares much better. Hathaway plays Kyle with a smirk, switching effortlessly from innocent waif to devious thief as needed. She is also the spark that shakes up Bruce Wayne from 8 years of morose navel-gazing after she steals Wayne’s family jewels and his fingerprints.

“There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” she whispers after getting caught, and then leaves to steal Wayne’s car. Later, she gets to drive the Batpod. This movie sinks when Hathaway is offscreen: her playfulness with Wayne – the Bat and the Cat – only deepening our affection for the character.

Christian Bale

Christian Bale still does that raspy Batman voice that’s like nails on a chalkboard. His Bruce Wayne isn’t quite at the end of his rope like in the Knightfall series but there is a downfall of sorts.

Wayne still blames himself for Rachel’s death at the hands of the Joker, and he is weighted down even more when his two strong arms leave him. It’s fitting though that Nolan caps off this particular story arc with the breaking of the Bat. Batman’s heroism has always come from his ability to overcome his own weaknesses for the greater good and here he rises to the challenge and more.

Pulse in the 3rd act

The movie finds a pulse when it reaches the third act, which is lifted straight from the “No Man’s Land” arc from the Batman comics.

Nolan is at his best when he is creating visual spectacle and here he overdoes himself with a spectacular exploding football field and the bombing of Gotham. He also still makes the best use of IMAX cameras: the scenes of the mid-air hijacking and Batman’s hovercraft soaring through Gotham are jaw-dropping on IMAX.

Not so spectacular is when Nolan’s too-sharp editing fails to make an action scene breathe and linger such as the chase scene with the Batpod. Even worse, he sometimes cuts his action with too much non-important stuff. In one scene, he’s got Batman racing to stop a bomb from exploding in Gotham and then cuts it with a scene where honest cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) argues with a bus driver about putting kids in a bus.

There’s also a missed opportunity here in Batman’s final fight with Bane, which echoes one of the most thrilling scenes from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Hundreds of cops and bad guys riot in Gotham while their 2 champions square off in the middle, like a modern day Daniel Day Lewis against Liam Neeson. So why zoom in so close to the action instead of panning wide so that everyone sees what’s happening?

But that’s a quibble compared to the movie’s other faults. The romance between Miranda Tate and Bruce Wayne doesn’t quite work, and no amount of piped-in Hans Zimmer music can build that drama.

Breaking the rules

Speaking of Zimmer, the entire third act feels drenched in droning music to build tension, when sometimes there is no tension to speak of. There’s also a subplot with Matthew Modine that feels like treading water.

And finally that ending, which lifted the movie from serious slog to exhilarating wonder. It’s thrilling, effective and finally gives the audience reason to cheer as it pulls together all the plot threads in this movie and the ones before it.

Nolan broke the rules when he made his first Batman movie, now he’s breaking it again with this ending. And for that, we should be grateful.