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The Dark Knight Rises (2012, USA)

24/07/2012

Director: Christopher Nolan      Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon Levitt

Before I begin, a quick word on spoilers. This review will be spoiler free, it doesn’t discuss any specifics beyond what should be common knowledge (e.g. which characters from the Batman universe feature in the story) and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in there that could damage your enjoyment of the film. If you’re really concerned about it, go see the film first. It’s good. You’ll enjoy it.

Like I said, I’m not much of a fan of Batman. Perhaps as a kid I thought he was pretty cool, but as I’ve got older I’ve increasingly found the concept of an ultra-rich vigilante who spends his days living a playboy lifestyle and his nights beating up people in the street to be less about a lone hero facing off against the forces of evil and more about a rich bully living out his revenge fantasies by beating up on people less fortunate than himself. Think about it. If it was really about fighting crime surely Bruce Wayne’s seemingly unlimited resources would be better spent on education, social care, employment and perhaps a city-wide private security detail to assist the police rather than on assembling his own arsenal of gadgets and weapons, his fancy vehicles and fetishistic body armour that allow him to sneak around in the dead of night and deal with criminals one at a time, an inefficient and frankly absurd approach to wiping out crime.

These aren’t the deeds of somebody intent on preventing crime. They are an exercise in ego and entitlement, an excuse to justify the expression of his own personal vengeance against the underprivileged who Wayne blames for the loss of his parents. The reality is, many of his run of the mill foes probably have a similar life story to his (the loss of their parents, one way or another) but didn’t have the trust fund or the mansion or the lifelong family servant to shelter them from the world. The only thing that really seperates Batman from the bad guys he pummels is a bottomless bank account. His refrain that Batman is a symbol, a representation of what people can be and that anyone could be Batman is a lovely sentiment but a hollow one. The reality is that anyone can be Batman if they have a limitless fortune and (by extension) access to the latest in military and law enforcement technology. The reality is also that people with no resources and severe personality disorders end up as serial killers whereas rich people with the same severe personality disorders end up as CEOs and politicians. This is why I don’t like Batman the character. It is also why I really rather liked The Dark Knight Rises.

I was delighted to see that Nolan addresses (at least partially) this very issue in his third and final Bat-film with Wayne being attacked on several sides by this very argument, that he has lived as a bloated fat cat for too long at the expense of the people of Gotham. It becomes the war cry of his enemies, political, corporate and criminal (the lines between which are too blurred to properly differentiate one from the other) and it’s an idea that reverberates around the rest of the story. This is where Bale comes into his own. I was never keen on him as Batman in the earlier films but there’s something about him being placed in this context (perhaps an after-image of his portrayal of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho?) that perfectly suits his natural smug arrogance.

It’s no secret that this film’s major villains are Selina Kyle (AKA Catwoman, portrayed here by Anne Hathaway) and the hulking powerhouse Bane (a monstrous turn from a ridiculously pumped up Tom Hardy) and if I’m being completely honest this pair make the film between them. Nolan’s treatment of Catwoman, ditching every previous incarnation’s obsession with making her act like a cat and instead realising her as a lithe, expert cat burglar who is more than capable of looking after herself is very refreshing. She gets to be strong, intelligent AND sexy without resorting to camp cat ears or fake tails and without a rolled “r” in earshot. She’s a great character (I found myself wishing she would actually get a bit more screen time) who gets some cracking action scenes and is easily the second best thing about the film.

The best thing about the film is of course the ever watchable Tom Hardy who has bulked out to epic proportions for his role as Bane. Hardy’s physicality wins the day here as throughout the film his face is obscured by Bane’s trademark mask leaving it up to his eyes and gargantuan physique to do most of the work although he does get some of the best dialogue in the movie. At first glance he may seem like some intellectually challenged barbarian, but his physical build belies a devious intellect and Hardy’s delivery brings out the eccentric philosopher and fanatical visionary that lies behind the hundreds of pounds of muscle. Brains and brawn driven by a much purer ideology than the one Batman clings to makes Bane a formidable opponent and easily one of the greatest screen villains in a long, long time.

The technical achievements I’ve come to expect from Nolan are present in spades. The use of CGI seems minimal and deployed in just the right places and right ways to enhance the experience rather than being jarring. His obsession with doing as much as possible for real is one of the things I admire about his work and one of the things that make a film like this, where I have no vested interest in the hero, as watchable to me as it would be to the biggest Batman fan. Of course this is as much to do with the dedication of his cast as anything else. Again it is impossible to talk about this without mentioning Hardy, a man whose dedication to his roles is becoming legendary. Months of constant, intense training went in to preparing for Bane and his dedication to his fight training is obvious when you see him do battle on screen. When Bane enters the fray it is brutal and utterly believable and this makes for some truly entertaining fight sequences. It would be wrong to overlook Bale and Hathaway in this respect too, as both do an excellent job of the physical action the film demands. Hathaway has some particularly spectacular moments as the ultra-flexible and extremely feisty Kyle. Her acrobatic fighting style is not only extremely cinematic, but perfectly compliments her character.

I’ve heard some rumblings about the running time and at just shy of three hours (164 minutes to be exact) it sounds, on paper anyway, like an epic undertaking with extreme potential for pacing problems. As it happens the only issue I had with the pacing is that the last act seems kind of rushed as they try to convey the passage of several months rapidly in order to sprint to the finish. I actually think it could have done with another half hour or maybe more to explore the build up of these final scenes. There are some brilliant ideas at work here that could almost justify a film in their own right and it seems like a shame to compress them into this one but I suppose a line had to be drawn somewhere. Nevertheless, the film never drags and I certainly wasn’t aware of the running time while I was watching it which can only be a good thing.

Is this the greatest film ever made? Despite what its more fanatical supporters claim, no it isn’t. Nor is it the best Christopher Nolan film (that honour is reserved for the tremendous and inventive Memento). What it definitely is, is a fine example of a Summer Blockbuster, a film that delivers action and excitement in a convincing and thoughtful way. A film that doesn’t dumb down for lowest common denominator appeal and that manages to conform to the restrictions of a 12A rating without becoming childish, patronising or superficial in the process. I’m not a Batman fan, but I am a movie fan, and The Dark Knight Rises is one hell of a movie.

For a spoiler-inflected look at where the franchise can go from here, check out this article, written by someone who, unlike me, actually knows a bit about Batman.

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