THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) (***1/2)
Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy has come to an end. In many ways it reminds me of another great trilogy's finale — RETURN OF THE JEDI. Not quite up to the grand standards of its predecessors, but a satisfying conclusion to the story of its main characters.
The action takes place eight years after the end of THE DARK KNIGHT. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, AMERICAN PYSCHO) is now living as a recluse in his Wayne Manor, his body broken from years of abuse defending Gotham as the Dark Knight. The city has not seen the Batman since the death of DA Harvey Dent. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, THE PROFESSIONAL) has kept the secret of Harvey Dent's descent into madness from the city. Dent's death, which Batman took the blame, has given the authority the clout to enact tough anti-crime laws that some feel overreach. Because Bruce believes that great power takes great responsibility and can easily be abused, he has decided to shelve a fusion power project, which has the potential to bring cheap power to millions.
A new threat has come to Gotham City in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy, INCEPTION). The hulking menace has begun a campaign of terror on the city. While the masked, gravelly-voiced muscleman looks like just a thug, he has brains to match his brawn. Working with unscrupulous businessmen in Gotham, Bain cleverly finds a way to cripple Bruce Wayne financially. Even though he is now left with little resources, Bruce decides the Batman must return. However, his dutiful butler Alfred (Michael Caine, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) believes it is time that he hang up the cowl. With no money and an aging body, is Bruce Wayne's return as the Dark Knight a suicide mission?
So how is THE DARK KNIGHT RISES like RETURN OF THE JEDI? Like the STAR WARS trilogy, the primary threat from the first film is brought back in the third film. In JEDI, the Death Star returns to threaten the heroes, while RISES sees the return of the League of Shadows. Here, Bane is an agent of the League with a mission to finish the destruction of Gotham that Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson, TAKEN) started in BATMAN BEGINS.
In John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, BRICK), we get a father/son redemption story that takes place between the young police officer and Bruce Wayne. It's not a total apples to apples comparison to Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, but you could say Blake brings balance to The Force by reminding Wayne who he really is in his heart. Separate from the comparisons to the STAR WARS series, Blake is one of the great characters added to the DARK KNIGHT series. As an orphan himself, he relates to Bruce Wayne and idolizes the hope that Batman brought Gotham. He is your everyday hero. A cop who wants to do good by his city. He not only reminds Wayne of who he once was, but also Gordon.
Now RISES doesn't have anything quite as cute-troversal as the Ewoks, but it has memorable new characters that serve the emotional core. Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, (Anne Hathaway, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED) is a burglar, looking to start her life fresh. Bruce meets her when she's caught stealing his mother's necklace. Later she warns him that he and his kind will have a reckoning for taking so much and leaving so little for the majority. Little does she know how much Wayne has sacrificed for the people of Gotham. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, INCEPTION) is a Wayne board member, who comes from the opposite point of view, seeing what good Wayne has done. She was a chief investor in his fusion project. And like Wayne and Kyle, she has a past that motivates her actions. Both actresses create captivating characters. Hathaway makes Catwoman her own. The character has never felt more real. Cotillard gives a thankless role more gravitas. Both are key in mirroring the emotional conclusion to Bruce Wayne's story.
Unlike the first two films in the series, this finale has a conventional form of tension. Bane eventually get his hands on the fusion reactor and threatens to detonate the bomb he has made. With this structure for a good portion of the film, it's a simple ticking time bomb. The problem with this device in this film is that the bomb ticks, ticks, ticks for months, losing impact over time. The tension created by the bomb is defused because we never feel it is a true threat because the heroes are given so much time to find a solution to the problem.
Like the second entry in the series, RISES takes cues from real world dramas. The last film seemed to argue that a select few, a la CIA members, are justified in using extreme measures in ticking bomb situations. RISES takes that idea further, arguing that when that leeway is given to a broader authority it is abused. Bane and his minions are infused with the anarchists who infiltrated the Occupy movement. They just want to burn society to the ground, trying the rich in kangaroo courts. Nolan plays these winks so vaguely that either side of the ideological debate could claim the film supports them. In the end, it's just a Batman flick.
RISES presents a broken Bruce Wayne. He has given everything to defend his beloved city sans his life. His parents gave their lives. His love gave hers. Alfred sees the city as something that just keeps taking. Bruce, via the Batman, has made his city safer, but at what cost? And has it taken too much of a toll that he can no longer save it? While many of the trappings that surround this emotional story are not as engaging as the previous films, Bruce's story is given its due. It is the story of a hero and what they do.