(L-r) TOM HARDY as Bane and CHRISTIAN BALE as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures'… (Ron Phillips )
*** (out of four)
Find a cannon, buy a doughnut and shoot the thing into the sky. (Watch out/you're welcome, birds.) That flying piece of pastry won't climb anywhere near as high as expectations for"The Dark Knight Rises,"whose review embargo lifted days before the Chicago screening. Perhaps so people could start publicly calling it, "The best movie I've never seen."
Indeed, after the screening, I returned to the office, and my failure to utter the phrase "Best movie ever" elicited a concerned sigh. It's no surprise people expect the world. "The Dark Knight," the rare unifier between box-office gold and critical acclaim, signifies pretty much the universal choice for the best superhero movie of all time, featuring a legendary performance by posthumous Oscar winner Heath Ledger. If you listen, you can still hear the Joker's tongue flickering, daring someone to test the villain's mastery of chaos.
Consequently, many may feel a shiver of disappointment after "The Dark Knight Rises," largely because hopes are so high and partly because the final installment in director Christopher Nolan's trilogy more closely resembles the solid, imperfect"Batman Begins" than the frequently extraordinary "The Dark Knight." That's not to say Nolan has not saved some tricks for last. After all, a significant chunk of the series' fandom comes not from a passionate love for Batman but the rare movie-going exhilaration that comes in the hands of a filmmaker with the ability to surprise and astound. Really, how many big-budget directors still do that?
In "Rises," eyebrows have reason to elevate almost immediately, in an opening sequence that will make IMAX viewers glad they dropped the few extra bucks. Inside a plane housing CIA operatives who have no idea who they're dealing with, Bane (Tom Hardy in an exceptional, terrifying performance), a buff beast whose booming voice arrives obstructed by what looks like a poorly conceived gas mask, executes a thrilling, destructive tragedy and makes it look easy. The evil act won't be his last, and this disturbing human wrecking ball's guaranteed potential for mayhem represents enough for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to un-retire his Batman costume. In the eight years since the death of one-time do-gooder, eventual baddie Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Bruce has become a recluse, so much that even his veteran associates Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) encourage him to get out and date more.
Could that mean sparks with activist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard)? Or with the thieving Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who, yes, looks like a Catwoman in the right mask and tight-fitting ensemble? Hathaway may fit the part, but she's an actress whose effort almost always reveals itself. Here, her toughness never seems natural. When Selina's meant to be mysteriously dangerous and unexpectedly layered, Hathaway's performance only fakes the edge needed to feel seduced and possibly overpowered by a woman so skilled at messing with Bruce.
Unlike its remarkably engrossing predecessor, "The Dark Knight Rises" struggles to master its rhythms and buckles under its running time (a whopping 164 minutes). The film stuffs in topical notions about clean energy, privacy, job opportunities, charity and, most significantly, widely skewed distributions of wealth on top of ever-present discussions of morality. A comment about the foolish arrogance of the wealthy drips like venom out of Selina's mouth, and it becomes increasingly clear that Bruce, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and officer John Blake (a very goodJoseph Gordon-Levitt) are battling an army unwilling to remain underground and underrepresented any longer.
Pittsburgh may have taken over for Chicago as Gotham, but in "The Dark Knight Rises" (which far exceeds"The Avengers"and"The Amazing Spider-Man"in ambition and wows) Batman's city remains a stand-in for any city where some people will no longer tolerate the lies and condescension from those in power. Money isn't power, Bane argues, and no one who stares the guy in the face—what they can see of it—would disagree.
This bloated, sometimes-chilling crime epic approaches fear as a useful tool for those on both sides of the law, each empowered to rise up when no one else will. With or without a cape.
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