Saturday, July 21, 2012

REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies truly have taken the superhero movie genre and – maybe redefined isn’t the best word – more like “done something entirely new” with it. Nolan’s movies aren’t the be-all-end-all, and some people won’t gel with their often dark and intensely gritty tones, but he created this really engrossing world of Gotham City that I think is just fascinating, despite how many times things get blown up in these movies. Seriously, don’t the bad guys in these have any other plans than just blowing shit up? I guess not.

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

But the inimitable footprint of Nolan on the superhero movie-genre remains, as he took a silly concept formerly relegated to campy action movies and injected it with some very compelling and relevant themes as well as a killer sense of atmosphere and style that made them feel kind of like graphic novels come to life, they were so intricately woven and jam-packed with action and dialogue. Some people laud (or bash) these films for trying too hard to be realistic, and I say – what? These movies were realistic? With ancient cults of black-hooded martial artists and deranged clowns who, despite supposedly not planning anything, had leagues and leagues of henchmen planting bombs strategically throughout the city for days and days on end? Please. They were darker, sure; grittier, definitely, but realistic? These two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, were cinematic forays into the modern graphic novel. They had multiple parts to them where issue breaks in normal comics would be, lots of characters with complex relationships and were very long and detailed – like graphic novels are!

And now we have The Dark Knight Rises, the much ballyhooed and long-awaited third sequel to this trilogy and the final end to it all from Nolan. It’s hard to really sum up how I feel about this in a succinct manner, so I’ll have to go into a lengthier detail about it. I liked parts of it, but there were also some notable downgrades in quality from the previous two films. There were moments where I was completely invested and then others where I was taken out of the movie by something silly and Hollywood-esque that just felt out of place. The scope was magnificent and the length was fully supported by the gala of material Nolan crammed in, but it felt a bit spread-thin and disjointed, without the cohesive and singular impact of The Dark Knight.

I guess one of the most notable departures in style this one has is that it’s more comic book-y than the other ones. The other films had very mature and well-reasoned dialogue about 98% of the time that really did well to establish character, along with the superlative acting and Nolan’s own creative vision. This one sacrifices a little of that depth in lieu of a much more streamlined cinematic style of dialogue more in common with The Avengers or maybe Iron Man, although the complexity of the story and the acting still manage to save the writing/dialogue from completely falling off the map. Instead of the cuttingly dramatic edge some of the dialogue in The Dark Knight had, here we get more calculated witticisms and consciously humorous lines made to elicit a giggle from the audience, as if to offer a break from the suffocating darkness of the main plot. It’s not all bad, but I miss the more well thought out writing from the other movies, and there are some parts of this, mostly near the end, where I actually cringed at how melodramatic and silly it got. Not many parts, but the few there were made a sour impression.

One more comic book-y thing about this movie is the change in story-type. Batman Begins’ plot was very much in the vein of a stylized Asian action flick for the first half and then switched to a more traditional superhero origin story, albeit done up with a more complex emotional tone for Bruce Wayne’s character as well as some nice, gritty shots of Gotham City that elevated it above the norm at the time. The Dark Knight took things to another level with its high-speed and high-tension crime movie plot, and the intricacy of that combined with the typical Batman brooding and the Joker’s philosophy and insanity made for a movie that was staggeringly complex and layered to the point of being exhausting to watch at times.

This one is longer, and one of the longest Hollywood flicks in any recent memory, but it’s also less complex in the way I wanted it to be, in the way of the intricacy of the plot. There is a lot crammed into this movie and perhaps I missed a few things, but my overall impression was that it was streamlined in the storytelling department too, or rather just a bit too sloppy to be called endearing. Where The Dark Knight was interwoven with tons of themes and sub-plots that all added up to the film’s rather crushing overall themes of chaos, order and loss, this one is a lot broader and stretched thin to the point where it’s more like a bunch of discordant parts running simultaneously against one another. Things are explained too fast and sometimes get lost in the huge running time. Maybe with further viewings this will seem less of a problem, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is a big step back from TDK’s masterful unity. While the scope is grandiose, the details in between are rushed and rather sloppily written in at times.

Another gripe I had was some of the new actors Nolan got on board. He’s had a great run of picking unlikely actors and making great performances out of them – see Aaron Eckhart and Heath Ledger. So when I heard he was casting Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, I was like “OK, I’m sure he’ll be able to get the very best out of this rather unfitting actress and make it totally believable, right?” Not right. I guess Hathaway isn’t too bad, and she mostly seems interested and energized, but she’s just so cleaned up and cutesy for a role like Catwoman. When you see her in Selena Kyle’s run-down urban apartment, all dirty and ghetto, you don’t really buy it. This is a girl more at home in a fancy penthouse suite, not in some low-rent flea-bitten hole in the wall. And I’m sorry to say this, as it seemed like she was really into it, but she just lacks the necessary grit and cunning to be Catwoman. She’s too nice and too sassy and just seems out of place. A shame – it could have been done so well.

The real disappointment for me was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as this new character Detective Blake, a young guy with a strange connection to the long-missing Batman. This character could have been kind of cool…when he first showed up I figured he’d be doing something Dexter-esque like trying to discover the mystery of Batman and his real identity, but the real payoff is pretty mediocre, and as a character he’s mostly just kind of annoying and douchey. The acting is typically decent, and Levitt never turns in an outright bad performance. The problem is the writing for his character, which is probably the worst this movie got overall. He is just way too preachy and the writing for him seems like something out of a 90s anti-bullying PSA. Like they tried for ‘Boy Scout’ and ended up with ‘Captain Planet reject.’ Very disappointing from the usually quite subtle and efficient Nolan.

The regular cast is all good, though. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne gets a lot more screentime here and he does really well, even though the absence of Heath Ledger’s Joker and the Rachel character makes this whole thing feel like a rock band without its famed lead singer, but hey, nothing we can do about that. Bale performs with the necessary dramatic flair and seriousness and hits all the right notes. His Batman is maybe my favorite one yet in these movies, as he seems older, more experienced and yet also more haunted, like the Batman that gained fame in the comics. That was one thing this movie did very, very well; it really gave you a Batman that was hardened and chiseled by his experiences and thus seems all the more conflicted as to why he’s even doing what he’s doing. And for a character who dresses up like a big bat, to make us contemplate his motives and psychology this much is a big accomplishment.

Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon isn’t as prominent as he was in the previous film, but he still does good, and the same goes for Morgan Freeman’s Lucious Fox. Michael Caine as Alfred is on-point as usual, despite a very poorly done scene at the end of the movie which I can’t spoil for you here, but I’ll excuse that because, hey, it’s Michael friggin’ Caine. You can’t argue with him even when he’s given poorly written lines to say in the context of incredibly rushed scenes. He’s just that good.

You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Bane yet, and that is because he is probably the film’s biggest asset overall. Tom Hardy was an odd choice, but DAMN does he deliver in this role! Bane in the comics was a calculating, bloodthirsty genius, and he broke Batman in every sense of the word. That character is about as well represented here as I think we’re likely to get in any near future, and although I would have liked a tiny more of the conflict between them in the way that Batman and the Joker had in the last one, Hardy absolutely DOMINATES on screen every scene he is in.

He steals the show. He’s got this really odd warbly Irish-accented voice like some old circus ringleader with a curly mustache, and at first it sounds funny, but when you hear that voice thundering out of the darkness of a dank, poorly-lit sewer lair, or when he’s beating the living daylights out of you…you’ll come to find it unsettling pretty quick. He moves effortlessly like a man who thinks he deserves to have his own moons orbiting around him, and he has this eerie fanaticism and charisma about him that just makes it seem like he really, truly believes everything he’s saying, and would die for it, with it on his lips in his last breath. Everything about him is just incredibly imposing and intimidating. Some of the scenes, like his one-on-one fight with Batman, or one where he addresses a football stadium, are the best in the entire film. A magnificent performance.

The scope of this thing is incredibly massive and covers a lot of different elements of this huge story, and while I mentioned earlier that sometimes the writing was off, I was always entertained by how big and immediate everything felt. At near three hours we get a lot of material, and the film covers a lot of ground in many locations. I really felt the danger the people of Gotham were in, and when the climax rolled around I was totally invested even despite the lame lines and a few trite clichés that Nolan is obviously above in his other movies. It’s so massive that you can’t help but be invested. And Nolan’s penchant for great car-chase action scenes is in full force here – not to be missed.

The ending is nice enough, if a bit rushed – like Nolan was thinking he had to wrap up the film really fast because it was already too long. It’s a happy ending, and that’s refreshing after the brooding last two movies, but at the same time I wish it was fleshed out more and had more emotion to it than it did.

Really what this movie accomplished was that it pointed out what was so good about The Dark Knight. The faults of this movie really bring to light the fact that The Dark Knight was a one of a kind thing, a special film that doesn’t come around more than once. Nolan’s combination of hard-assed political crime thriller and darkly epic superhero myth was spiced with the right kind of writing and dynamic to make something singular and fresh, which sadly wasn’t replicated in its sequel. A few of the best moments of this borrow from The Dark Knight more than I like to really admit to.

So The Dark Knight Rises was a disappointment, if an incredibly ambitious and sometimes engrossing disappointment. There are some moments of this that are stunning and fully encompass the epic scope Nolan was going for, and others that are oddly weak or rushed. This was not a half-assed movie and a lot of effort was put into it, and for that it is worth a viewing no matter what your final opinion of it is. So in the end, it was a beautiful and intriguing disappointment and something worth watching and talking about despite its weaknesses, because it really did have some very good, meaningful scenes and themes of pain and fighting through the pain. It’s a movie about a city in the throes of rebellion and political uprisings and doing what’s right even though people may not appreciate it – typical superhero themes and carried with dignity here.

I wish this was a stronger film, but it’s an odd paradox in that it is a disappointment worth watching anyway, just because of the massive effort put into it, and because it follows such a great duo of films. The writing was lacking and the plot could have been tighter, and those things were its more concrete and basic flaws, but this was mostly a failure of over-ambitiousness - it didn't totally work because Nolan consciously over-extended his reach in trying to make something more epic than The Dark Knight. But that kind of failure makes it more interesting to watch (as opposed to a mere failure of mediocre writing and loose plots), for the creativity and zeal of its creators in putting it together. So this wasn’t the masterpiece I wanted. But I think it still merits a watch. Give it a try anyway.

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