The Dark Knight Rises (Film Review)

4 out of 4 stars

After a four year absence, Batman swoops back into theatres in his finest form yet with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.  Miraculously, the film even manages to top its brilliant predecessor ‘The Dark Knight’, stunning the viewer with its epic story, rousing emotion, compelling characters and heart-stopping action.  Even viewers who usually ignore superhero films will be enthralled by the engrossing spectacle unfolding on screen before them. Without a doubt, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is a true masterpiece, destined to become a cultural phenomenon for a generation.

The film begins eight years after the events of the last film, with crime in Gotham City at an all-time low.  Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) however has become a recluse, hiding away from the world in his mansion with only his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) for companionship.  Despite giving up his vigilante career as Batman, he finds no joy in retirement, still tormented by the murder of his lover Rachel. As Alfred tells him in a moment of soul-searching advice, ‘you hung up your cape and cowl, but you didn’t find anything to replace it – you never moved on’.

Meanwhile, Gotham City’s peace will soon be shattered as it faces its biggest threat yet: Bane (Tom Hardy).  A masked terrorist and leader of an army of mercenaries, Bane arrives in the city with sinister plans for its people, and begins a series of brutal attacks on its police force.  With the people once again in need of hero, Wayne chooses to once again don the cape and cowl, returning to fight on the streets of Gotham as Batman.  With the help of jewel thief and fellow vigilante Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), Wayne begins an epic journey of redemption as he battles to save both the city and his soul.

By now, writer and director Christopher Nolan has already established himself as one of Hollywood’s most gifted storytellers.  ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ will surely elevate his legend to even further heights,  as it is clearly his most evocative and ambitious story to date.  Thematically, emotionally, and physically, the film is massive in scale, arguably ranking as the first real industry ‘epic’ since ‘The Return of the King’ in 2003.   At its innermost core, the film is a riveting character drama regarding one man’s search for his identity and purpose. On a larger level though, it is a colossal story of good and evil within a whole city,   a cautionary tale of how mankind’s ability to either care for each other or tear each other apart during times of turmoil.   In this sense, ‘Rises’ almost feels like a descendant of literary classics such as ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ rather than a typical summer blockbuster.

Of course, it is the actors that bring the visceral emotion to Nolan’s tale.  Featuring the largest ensemble cast of the series, every performer brings their utmost dedication and conviction to their part.  Among the newcomers to the series, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is particularly impressive as John Blake, a young detective working under the command of Commissioner Gordon.  In many ways,  ‘Rises’ is as much a coming-of-age tale for Blake as it is a final conclusion to Wayne’s journey,  and Levitt perfectly handles the eagerness and optimism of the character.  Likewise, Marion Cotillard also succeeds as Wayne Enterprises member Miranda Tate, who helps Wayne develop a renewable energy project at the company in addition to being a romantic interest.  Although Tate could have benefited from more screen time, Cotillard nevertheless invests her with depth and complexity,   hiding hints of a tragic past and a disdain for the city’s wealthy elite under a romantic exterior.  Also worth mentioning is Michael Caine, who gives his most emotional performance in the role yet.  In fact, a scene midway through the film where Alfred begs Bruce to give up the cape and cowl will bring tears to even the most uptight of viewers.  And of course, viewers will also be entertained by the two surprise cameos in the film, in which two major stars make a welcome return to the series.

Ultimately though, the film definitely belongs to leading man Christian Bale.  Now an Oscar winner thanks to his role in ‘The Fighter’,   Bale easily gives his best and most complex performance of the trilogy. As Batman, the actor is as convincing as ever in the costume, knocking down thugs with more aggressive flair than 007 and growling out every line with a monstrous intensity from beneath the cowl.   As usual though it is the scenes outside the bat suit as Bruce Wayne in which Bale truly has the chance to display his talent.  Physically weak and sporting a beard in the early scenes, Bale initially manages to convey a sense of true despair,   hunching over a cane and gazing hopelessly into the distance with each conversation.  Once he resumes his career as Batman though, he quickly begins recovering mentally and physically;  he learns to walk again,  resumes control of his business Wayne Enterprises, and starts romances with both business partner Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and Selina Kyle.  In this phase of the film, he returns to the suave and confident persona witnessed in certain degrees in the last films, almost coming across as a James Bond type figure in several scenes.  However, when Bruce faces his inevitable confrontation with Bane, he once again finds himself in incredible physical and emotional pain, much more so than ever before in his life.  Ultimately, Bruce finds out that peace for him may come at a much greater cost than he thought, as he finally reaches an end to his journey that is as moving as it is unexpected.  Throughout the entire character arc, Bale makes the emotional transitions subtle and believable, bringing ever more depth to the character.   Undoubtedly, Bale is deserving of an Oscar for his final turn as cinema’s most beloved superhero.

The other performance worthy of awards attention is that of Tom Hardy.  As the villain Bane, the actor is surprisingly just as menacing and captivating as the late Heath Ledger, albeit in a very different fashion.  Visually, Hardy resembles a cross between Hannibal Lecter and The Terminator – his character is extremely muscular, wearing an armoured vest over his chest and a skeletal-like gas mask over his face at all times.  The mask pumps an anaesthetic gas into his system for an injury suffered early in the story, but also has the effect of distorting his voice, giving it a disturbing robotic rasp.   Despite having more than half his face covered by the mask, Hardy’s performance is highly expressive, with the emotion in his eyes ranging widely from dead stillness to wide-eyed rage to even intense sadness in a pivotal scene. Additionally,   Hardy conveys a disquieting contradiction between Bane’s voice and his physicality.  Vocally, Hardy’s German accented speech is extremely florid and expressive in tone, varying in pitch and tempo like the voice of a dictator or military general giving a speech to an army.   This contrasts directly with his hulking, ruthless physical movements,  creating a strange aura of menace around him which captivates the viewer while visibly scaring other characters around him.  Additionally, Bane is also highly realistic, literally coming across in both appearance and action as a terrorist who could very feasibly exist in the real world. Ultimately, Hardy’s performance is a worthy follow-up to Ledger’s Joker, definitely ranking alongside that creation as one of the greatest screen villains in modern cinema.

Finally, Anne Hathaway also shines with her portrayal of Selina Kyle, better known in the comics as Catwoman.  A clear departure from Michelle Pfeiffer’s interpretation in Tim Burton’s 1992 film ‘Batman Returns’,   Hathaway’s Catwoman is an anti-establishment thief not unlike Robin Hood,  moving from one robbery to the next as she seeks to build up enough finances to start a new life and escape her dark past.  Wearing a cleverly designed ‘catsuit’ during burglaries which cleverly resembles Batman’s own costume,  Hathaway owns the film’s fight scenes even more than Bale does,  beating men more than double her size to a pulp with her heels and fists and jumping across rooftops with the agility of a panther.  Like Wayne, Kyle also goes through a process of self-discovery during the film, gradually falling in love with Wayne and losing her self-centred focus that she possesses at the beginning of the film.  Definitely the most vibrantly humorous performance in the film, Hathaway should also be a definite candidate for awards attention later in the year.

As for the film’s action, it goes without saying that each set piece is nothing short of fantastic.   From the opening aerial heist which opens the film to a frantic motorbike chase across the streets of Gotham, Nolan has once again raised the bar in terms of visceral excitement.  The scope of these sequences is only increased by the use of IMAX cameras – over 70 minutes of the film were shot in the format at the wish of Nolan, resulting in a radically more immersive visual and auditory experience.  Composer Hans Zimmer’s score, in addition to giving the film emotional weight, also serves as a significant adrenaline booster during these scenes, with the rousing Batman theme being employed to great effect as an action cue.

Amidst all the larger life mayhem, viewers may be surprised to find several political allusions scattered throughout.  The most obvious one is an anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street theme which is embodied through the villain Bane; while not condoning his brutal actions, the film’s plot subtly suggests Bane’s plan would never exist or be possible without the corruption of large businesses, with a corporate rival of Wayne, John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) playing a significant role in Bane’s takeover of Gotham.  This subtext is further enforced during a harrowing attack on a stock exchange, during which Bane ruthlessly attacks a securities trader.  When the man screams ‘What are you doing?  There’s no money to steal here!’ Bane coolly replies ‘Then why are you people here?’ before violently killing him.

Ultimately though, the film is at its core a highly moving personal tale of sacrifice and redemption.  From beginning to end,  the tale of Bruce Wayne is what drives the film, as he moves from a state of existential despair and meaninglessness to finally fulfilling his destiny and gaining lasting happiness.  Indeed,  one of ‘Rises’ core strengths is how it dares to give a concrete end to Bruce’s story in a manner that is as moving as it is unexpected,  a first for a comic book series. Even with all its darkness,  ‘Rises’ is ultimately an uplifting, inspiring tale of the triumph of good over evil,  of joy over despair,  and the power of a legend to inspire generations to come.

Without a doubt, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is the rare film that serves as both extraordinary escapist entertainment whilst moving the viewer on a deeply intimate level. Not only is it the best film in the Batman trilogy – it is simply the greatest comic book movie ever made in history.  Once again, Christopher Nolan has defied the odds and created a true work of art for our times.

Tom Hardy as Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is currently playing in Hong Kong theatres,  and is released in Shenzhen theatres on August 27th. 

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