Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

It's easy to forget just how daring and ambitious Christopher Nolan's recent Batman saga is; partly due to the much documented financial success of the first two instalments and the Oscar-winning turn of the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were both welcomed with open arms by audiences who marvelled at the transcendent nature of these superhero films, with The Joker becoming a staple of modern pop culture and Nolan rising the bar of the blockbuster to previously unseen heights.

Perhaps it's easy to forget how much hung in the balance when Nolan first defied what was 'acceptable' for a super hero film due to just how successful they were. For a genre primarily targeted at a young demographic and one that despite some darker moments remained fun with more than a hint of camp, Nolan transformed a genre and future audience expectations overnight. With a gritty realist approach, complex and non-linear storytelling methods, attention to character, and just enough gadgetry and humour to get away with it, Nolan placed Batman in a world not unlike the crime epics of Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann, managing to create a world where a man dressed as a bat blended in seamlessly, a tall challenge if there ever was one and a challenge succeeded.

This closing chapter to The Dark Knight Trilogy is the most ambitious one in the series and while Nolan's intentions should never be deemed anything less than righteous it certainly makes for the most problematic film in the series. The Dark Knight Rises brings its epic story to a suitable and rewarding end making its 164minute run time worth the effort. However, the film does buckle under the sheer weight of its expansiveness and while never dragging, makes for a rather bloated film full of inconstancy and bumbling weaknesses.

8 years after the bleak closure of The Dark Knight we pick up with Gotham City in a time of peace. Batman has been inactive for all this time after taking the fall for Harvey Dent's crimes and Bruce Wayne still grief stricken from the death of Rachel Dawes haunts the empty rooms of the recently resurrected Wayne Manor like a Howard Hughes or Charles Foster Kane. With a limp and a stick he has shut himself off from all social contact save for his loyal loving butler Alfred (Michael Caine). As we're introduced to this self loathing and depression soaked former hero it's clear not just from the film's title that the only way for Bruce Wayne is up, he just needs a good reason to rise to the occasion. Enter Bane.

Like the opening bank heist which introduced us to The Joker, TDKR treats us to another elaborate heist sequence showing off the intimidating skill of its villain Bane (Tom Hardy). This time the action takes place in the air as Bane and his men place themselves in an arresting position to transport a nuclear physicist from one plane to another while taking down the trained men guarding him. The sequence, though less thrilling than The Joker's heist, is more than impressive with Nolan accomplishing as much of the action in camera as possible and at such dazzling heights. If any of this aerial sequence required heavy use of post-special effects it's certainly impossible to tell, the action feels as if it's happening for real, hardly commonplace within a blockbuster but Nolan has always taken much pride from his cinematic craft and old school sensibility.

The old gang of characters are back with Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), as well as Alfred, but the film has many more players to introduce as well as its main villain. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays rookie idealist cop Blake whose own past draws tragic comparison's to Mr. Wayne's, Marion Cotillard is Miranda Tate - an environmentally interested business woman looking for funding from Wayne Enterprises, and Anne Hathaway is Selina Kyle - a talented thief who looks to liaise with Bane to turn the tables on Gotham's rich elite.

The Dark Knight naturally channelled post-9/11 fears into its story of nihilistic anarchy and TDKR takes this further with Bane now acting as terrorist leader, but in wake of the Wall Street protests and current economic climate the film becomes firmly interested in financial segregation. If Batman Begins owed somewhat to Blade Runner (1982), and TDK to Heat (1995), the only natural comparison to TDKR would be the work of Charles Dickens, in similar way to HBO's The Wire. As Bane's plans to level the stock market go ahead his henchman are planted within the targeted building as cleaners mopping the floors with Bane himself arriving as a motor bike carrier. Selina Kyle's introduction sees her as a planted waitress for a function held at Wayne Manor, with some 'upstairs downstairs' goings on shown through the high life of the party feasting on champagne to the depths of the kitchen as the workers slave away for them, the thematic intentions of the film (as well as Bane's) are made clear early on. If successful, Bane's scheme will level the rich and the disadvantaged will inherit the Earth.

The decision to go with Bane as Batman's nemesis was a wise move as until now the hero had only been outsmarted or simply outnumbered, having an adversary surpass Batman's intellect and psychical prowess makes Bane a truly intimidating force. In one key scene both face each other for the first time, unsurprisingly Bane dominates but the bludgeoning absorbed by Batman is shocking and filmed with  a stark simplicity highlighting Bane's brutal and unpretentious fighting methods. He hits hard but never more than needed and his attack is both severe but precise. As choice of villain Bane is perfect but there  are complications from his character; the brooding giant wears a mask throughout which at times muffles his words making certain low noted dialogue impossible to decipher, when speaking in higher tones his delivery has more clarity. The mask is an unquestionable characteristic due to the character's story in the comics ad graphic novels but TDKR never really explains the importance of this device other than it keeps him from feeling pain. More details are revealed later but after two hours without a good reason of why we can't hear the central villain clearly makes for a rather exasperating experience that one must call into question. Tom Hardy also feels sadly interchangeable in a role almost entirely masked throughout save for quick flashbacks, Bane is a psychical role but one that feels unworthy of Hardy's talents by the end as he's almost just a name on the poster.

The new additions to the cast are mostly impressive with Joseph Gordon Levitt on fine form as Blake, and Marion Cotillard as Miranda - a role at first vacuous but redeems by the end bringing important emotional resonance. But the film's highlight is Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle who's role alludes to a Catwoman of sorts. As well as physically impressing as the demure yet deadly diva she also has some of the film's best lines and plays dramatics and light comedy without a single misstep.

Unfortunately despite these new characters being of upmost importance to the story and performed majorly well, these additions makes for a lot of elbowing between the new and the old. There just isn't room for everyone here with each character having their time to be awkwardly absent from the film at one point or another. Gary Oldman's understated Gordon has  always impressed until now but barely gets a chance to shine, also Lucius Fox was always the Q to Wayne's Bond but the humour of their camaraderie is cut back with Fox being of no importance or enjoyment as a dramatic devise. The film's major flaw that is only heightened by or caused by the over the overpopulated cast is that it never hits a comfortable stride until the final hour. Of the three films TDKR is the only one that fails to flow at a complacent speed, often feeling clunky as it develops. Despite levelling out somewhat in the final stretch it only exchanges places with deadly plot holes of simple logistics and logic - plot holes I won't venture into for my refusal to enter spoilers.

There are plenty of fault on display in TDKR with gaping holes in plotting and unnecessary scenes in place of important ones omitted. It saddens me to speak at such length about the film's shortcomings but they are too obvious to ignore, the fact that this is undoubtably the weakest film in the trilogy only highlights just how impressive the first two instalments are because TDKR, for all its faults, is a spectacular achievement regardless of its predecessor's status. The decision to bring the drama back to Bruce Wayne for the most part and to ties it back in with the first film expresses an emotional resonance lacking in TDK, Christian Bale impresses more this time than ever before in the series. Despite females being his achilles heel, Nolan and his co-scripting brother Jonathan have crafted a truly memorable character in Selena Kyle, for better or for worse remaining the highpoint of this unsuppressed final film.  The brothers Nolan also bring about closure in the most fulfilling of ways, making it all worth it in the end.

There's no doubt that this final episode of Batman's story will gain somewhat from repeat viewings, but there's little doubt that its fumbling moments will dissipate along with them. TDKR isn't a disappointing finale as it succeeds in the most important area of bringing rewarding closure, though this time Christopher Nolan's ambition is as problematic as it is rewarding.

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