With “The Dark Knight Rises,” the final film in director Christopher Nolan's meditative and brutal “Batman” trilogy, Nolan orchestrates an artistically brave, uncompromised conclusion. It does not top 2008's “The Dark Knight,” but it sustains that film's excellence, building tension throughout and ending the saga with equal measures of wrenching catharsis and cautious hope for Bruce Wayne's beloved, beleaguered Gotham City.
Eight years after the Batman took the fall for District Attorney Harvey Dent's death and disappeared, the prosecutor is something of a Gotham saint: his policies of airtight due process, harsh penalties and nonexistent parole effectively decapitated organized crime in the city. Wayne (Christian Bale) and Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) quashed the reality of Dent's final miserable days as Two-Face, but as “Rises” opens, Wayne is a recluse, in seemingly permanent mourning after the death of lifelong love Rachel Dawes. He stays locked in Wayne Manor with only Alfred (Michael Caine) allowed to see him. It seems, for the moment, the Batman is no longer needed.
Then a master jewel thief masquerading as hired help steals something precious and irreplaceable from Wayne, who begins to reengage, slowly but just in time, because the clever thief, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) offers the billionaire a warning.
“There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” she said. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
To be sure, Wayne let many things slip, including his business and charities, and just as the entreaties of philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and the lassitude of his company awaken his concerns, the storm begins. It starts with identity theft, corporate malfeasance, bad policing and robbery, but it ends with Bane (Tom Hardy), a monstrous, hulking master criminal who speaks through a mask that looks like one-part radiator, one-part ball gag.
Bane comes on like a nightmare and operates like a terrorist, but he speaks like a master politician through that awful mechanical filter. Once he harnesses one of Wayne Industries' instruments of good for the ultimate evil, a terrified Gotham City populace is cowed into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome-like fealty to the captor, who leverages Dent's overreach to pit neighbor against neighbor in a city edging toward apocalypse. Gordon and his police force, including a trusted rookie cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), must fight a guerilla war against Bane as the clock ticks toward Gotham City's end time.
As one of the few auteur directors entrusted with massive event movies in 2012, Nolan creates spectacular, big-budget summer films that are never truly beholden to gadgets or effects. Much as he did in “The Dark Knight,” Nolan evokes the grubby 1970s New York police dramas of Sidney Lumet as often as he deploys the aesthetic of “Batman” scribes Frank Miller or, in the case of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Chuck Dixon. Yes, the effects are flawless and a new weapon from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is a total knockout for this series, but Fox's gadgets always serve the story, not the other way around. “The Dark Knight Rises” is a crime drama at its heart: most of the horrors could take place in the real world, resulting in far greater tension and believable stakes.
The story of “Rises” pivots on key plot points from the 1993 “Knightfall” series by Dixon and other collaborators, but Nolan and his brother, co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, streamline elements of that storyline to fit the arc of these films — significant callbacks to 2005's “Batman Begins” show up, including thematic and aesthetic through-lines and some real and satisfying surprises. The director also continues to display a thoughtful sensibility toward casting: the core acting team including Bale, Freeman, Caine and Oldman delivers at peak levels, and the ringers from 2010's “Inception” (including Cotillard, Gordon-Levitt and Hardy) fit nicely in Nolan's repertory. Hathaway brings intelligence and sleek charm to Kyle, and in particular, Hardy overcomes the considerable challenge of acting without most of his face showing (his situation is roughly an inversion of Bale's) and still coming on like a palpable threat.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is nearly three hours long, but it moves forward with the assurance that comes from great, uncompromised storytelling, and its conclusion flouts the conventions of its genre. But as this trilogy ends, that seems to be the point: like its predecessors, “The Dark Knight Rises” does not seem to know it's a summer event movie, and it is all the better for it.
— George Lang
“The Dark Knight Rises”