“The Dark Knight Rises” an underwhelming if skillful conclusion

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After four years of rabid anticipation for “The Dark Knight Rises”, it feels totally anticlimactic to finally take a seat and pound out words about it. No film has had as opulent a build-up, with thousands of theories and millions of comments buzzing around brief advance clips, snapshots even. “The Dark Knight Rises” is here and it is good. It’s a great thematic extension of Christopher Nolan’s terrific one-two punch of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”, piling on the weighty ideas as it raises the stakes of their spectacle.

Adopting a worldview as grim and stark as any major Hollywood production out there, “The Dark Knight Rises” is about no less than the total meltdown of a great American city. The fact that its subject, Gotham, doesn’t exist? Secondary. In this fictional behemoth we’ve come to identify all of the realities and limitations facing the real world, as well as the great acts of heroism that can also arise.

But just because “The Dark Knight Rises” is ideologically mature doesn’t mean the same for its storytelling. In fact, the film is a mess. Christopher Nolan, who’s developed a remarkable sense of control and craftsmanship in past films, seems to have forgotten everything he knows about pace and escalation. Characters come and go as they please, often disappearing for over 90 minutes, with introductions just as abrupt and jolting.

Fresh off the success of his phenomenal “Inception”, Nolan has littered the cast of “Rises” with veterans from that film, first of which is Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Bane, a fiercely intelligent cult leader who wants nothing less than to annihilate Gotham City. While a great worry of mine was whether the film’s villain would live up to that of its predecessor, Heath Ledger’s legendary Joker, Hardy owns this shit. His voice is a sort of aristocratic purr, providing a great contrast to his insanely chiseled physique.

Bane has arrived in Gotham with the means to activate a hydrogen bomb and a plan to isolate the 12 million-strong metropolis from the rest of the world. The only thing in the dude’s way? The billionaire Bruce Wayne, or at least, his vigilante alter-ego Batman. This said, it’s been eight years since the tragic events of “The Dark Knight” rocked Wayne’s physique, turning him into a bitter, out-of-shape recluse. If Wayne is to “get back in the game”, he’ll need all the help he can get.

“The Dark Knight Rises”, if nothing else, has the most flawless cast of any film this year. The problem is whether much is done with the characters. There’s the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing beat cop John Blake, whose idolization of Batman gives him the strongest moral compass in the film. Gordon-Levitt is certainly the strongest supporting player at work here, and its his fate I came to value over most others. Anne Hathaway plays the elusive thief Selina Kyle (clearly Catwoman, despite never being named as such) as forcefully and convincingly as any other role in her career. Her moral ambiguity is one of the only truly mysterious elements of the film, and the sight of her in a skintight suit certainly isn’t an ugly thing. Returning players Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are as great as always, playing Wayne’s butler, cop friend and technology guru, respectively. Caine in particular is given some deeply poignant moments of farewell to his life-long friend, Bruce. Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard is adept in a role more significant than advertisements reveal. Christian Bale turns in his best work in the trilogy, as a man who’s given up on near-everything, especially himself, and needs to give all he can to save his city.

If there’s one area in which Nolan has truly improved and expanded, it’s technical skill. “The Dark Knight Rises”, filmed mostly with IMAX cameras, is a work of massive scope and visual complexity. Its action, although rarer than expected, is crisp and clear. The punches land hard and the explosions boom big. Nolan’s handling of combat has progressed from awkward and stagy in early works to refined, masterful even.

“The Dark Knight Rises” though, for all of its spectacle and scope, its sense of conclusion, feels like ending its character’s legacy on a whimper, not a bang. Emotionally, the thing simply doesn’t hit the necessary beats to become the masterpiece it could have been. Whether its the overly-packed story, the rushed pace or the ham-fisted ending — it doesn’t matter. “Rises” never achieves the sweeping highs of its predecessor, or the genre that’s increasingly catching up to it in spectacle and complexity. The assured storytelling of “Batman Begins” isn’t here. Nor is the freewheeling anarchy that gave “The Dark Knight” its off-kilter greatness. But hell, it’s a nice big show. B

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