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Review: Batman series ends as epic letdown

The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan
Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
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Christopher Nolan concludes his Batman trilogy in typically spectacular, ambitious fashion with The Dark Knight Rises, but the feeling of frustration and disappointment is unshakable.

Maybe that was inevitable. Maybe nothing could have met the expectations established by 2008ís The Dark Knight, which revolutionized and set the standard for films based on comic books by being both high-minded and crowd-pleasing. With Christian Bale as his tortured superhero starting from 2005ís Batman Begins, Nolan has explored the complicated and conflicting motivations of man as well as the possibility of greatness and redemption within society.

Here, as director and co-writer, heís unrelenting in hammering home the dread, the sorrow, the sense of detachment and futility of a city on the brink of collapse with no savior in sight. Gotham is under siege in ways that tonally and visually recall 9/11; what is obviously the island of Manhattan gets cut off from the outside world at one point. Rather than seeming exploitative, itís just one of many examples of the script from Nolan and his usual collaborator, his brother Jonathan, making the franchise feel like a relevant reflection of our times. Identity theft, economic collapse and an uprising of the disgruntled, disenfranchised have-nots against the smug, comfy haves also come into play.

Thereís so much going on here, though, with so many new characters who are all meant to function in significant ways that The Dark Knight Rises feels overloaded, and sadly lacking the spark that gave 2008ís The Dark Knight such vibrancy. The absence of Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the anarchic and truly frightening Joker, is really obvious here. In retrospect, it makes you realize how crucial Ledgerís performance was in making that Batman movie fly.

By comparison, The Dark Knight Rises is plot-heavy, obsessed with process, laden with expository dialogue and flashbacks that bog down the momentum and _ dare I say it? _ just flat-out boring at times. Yes, the Batman world through Nolanís eyes is supposed to be moody and introspective; youíve got to admire the fact that he is willing to challenge us this way when summer blockbusters so often feel flashy and hollow. And yet at the same time, it takes some giant leaps with its characters which either make no sense, havenít earned the emotions theyíre seeking, or both.

The Dark Knight Rises does feature the kind of impeccable production values weíve come to expect from Nolanís films; many members of his core team are back, including cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith and production designers Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh. The Dark Knight Rises feels weighty and substantive _ and, thankfully, isnít in 3-D _ but it takes on an even grittier look than its predecessors as Gotham City devolves into desperation and ruin.

But Nolanís approach is so coldly cerebral that itís a detriment to the filmís emotional core. Itís all doom and gloom and no heart. There is no reason to care about these characters, who function more as cogs in an elaborate, chaotic machine than as real people whose souls are at stake.

Itís been four years since The Dark Knight came out but eight years have passed in terms of story. Baleís Bruce Wayne suffers in self-imposed exile, sulking about Wayne Manor, mourning the loss of his darling Rachel and carrying the burden of blame for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent. His goal of a peaceful Gotham has been achieved, but heís left as a man without a purpose. Michael Caine, as the ever-loyal valet Alfred, brings dignity and eloquence to the film as he begs Bruce to carve out his own form of happiness. Fellow veterans Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as gadget guru Lucius Fox are their usual dignified selves, but they donít register the way they should because the film is so overstuffed.

Several new characters manage to draw Bruce out of his funk in various ways. Anne Hathaway brings some much needed zest to the proceedings as Selina Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman in the Batman universe, a slinky thief who punctures Bruceís bubble when she lifts his fingerprints from his safe, along with a beloved pearl necklace. Sheís selfish and cynical, only looking out for herself, but at least she goes about her crimes with some verve and style. They never call her Catwoman by name, and sheís never as campy as Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry were in previous film incarnations of the role, but sheís always fun to watch.

The other woman in Bruceís life, however, is woefully underdeveloped _ which is a real problem because she plays a key role in the filmís climactic revelations. Marion Cotillard (one of many alumni from Nolanís ďInceptionĒ) co-stars as Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist who hopes to work with Wayne Enterprises on developing clean, sustainable energy. The romance that develops between her and Bruce is utterly unbelievable.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds a youthful presence as John Blake, an up-and-coming member of the police force who inspires Bruce to revisit his own childhood as an orphan. Gordon-Levitt as solid as always but thereís not much to his character aside from earnestness.

Then thereís Bane, a muscular mass of pure evil who orchestrates an elaborate takeover of Gotham City. The role is a huge waste of what Tom Hardy can do; his character is so one-dimensional and poorly defined, heís never so much a fearsome figure as a large and hulking one. It doesnít help matters that itís often difficult to make out what heís saying beneath the cage-like muzzle that covers his nose and mouth and alters his voice. Hardy can be sexy and charismatic (as he proved in Inception) but also a dangerous and unpredictable figure. None of that is on display here. Heís all brute force.

But he is the instigator of the filmís dazzling opening sequence, worthy of the best of James Bond: a daring aerial maneuver in which Bane kidnaps a scientist by hijacking his plane from the skies above. Thatís probably the most effective of the many set pieces Nolan stages here, although the collapse of Heinz Field during a packed football game also has an urgent, visceral quality, with thrills that recall the most imaginative moments of Inception.

This is the problem when youíre an exceptional, visionary filmmaker. When you give people something extraordinary, they expect it every time. Anything short of that feels like a letdown.

The Dark Knight Rises, a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.

Running time: 164 minutes

Rating: Two stars out of four


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