WHAT magnificent chaos this is, the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. In keeping with the Dickens novel from which the picture takes inspiration – and many other sources – The Dark Knight Rises offers the best of times, the longest of times. Above all, it offers spectacle like no other.
At a physically testing 164 minutes, the film is so long that during the gaps between plot developments it is not only possible to forget what is going on but your own name as well. Add to that a villain who is near unintelligible, and The Dark Knight Rises should be a stumble on Nolan's part.
Yet the sheer ambition of the piece, the show Nolan ultimately puts on, makes one forgive these flaws. If this is a failure, would that cinema fail this way more often.
After Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan could have followed the Twilight example and split this instalment into two parts, the better to keep the cash tills ringing. But he gives everything he has here and, holy capes and cowls, does he put on a display? Forget the Olympics opening ceremony – if Danny Boyle wants to showcase the best of British, he should run Nolan's movie.
The tale opens eight years after Batman has been accused of murdering prosecutor Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the eccentric billionaire half of the superhero, is rumoured to be living like late-period Howard Hughes, all long hair and toenails. In reality, he is sporting a goatee. As tonsorial cries for help go, I've seen better.
Bruce is in hiding from the world, which suits his devoted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), who fears things won't go well for Batman if he surfaces again. But a superhero has to do, etc. Everything from the clouds to his fellow characters, chief among them Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, the jewel thief, aka Anne Hathaway, are lining up to tell Wayne there is a storm a-coming.
The tornado-in-chief takes the form of Tom Hardy as a mercenary named Bane. Replacing the late Heath Ledger's Joker as the principal villain of the piece, Bane is a masked desperado in every sense. In agony from an earlier incident, he wears a contraption to drip-feed him painkillers. A clever idea, just a pity it makes one word in three unintelligible.
Instead of quaking under his gaze, it's a wonder his victims don't hit back with constant cries of "Pardon?"
Otherwise, Hardy makes a grand bad boy. Not as deliciously crazed as The Joker, but his pure animalism is magnificent. When he fights fist to fist he looks like a narked gorilla that has just necked 50 double espressos.
Bane has come to Gotham with a plan, but it is one the Nolan brothers (the screenplay is by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan) are in no hurry to reveal. After an hour, one starts to wonder if they will ever come up with the goods. They do.
Yes, the story is messy and sprawling, and there is too much comic-book gobbledegook sprinkled through the otherwise savvy script. Of course it is horribly indulgent to let a film run to near three hours. 2001: A Space Odyssey came in at 149 minutes. The Dark Knight Rises is no 2001: A Space Odyssey.
For all that it is a bloated behemoth, Nolan's picture has plenty of wonders, among them Hans Zimmer's chest-pounding score and Bale on intensely watchable form as the angst-ridden warrior. One of the delights is meant to be Hathaway's Catwoman. While one hopes she is going to be a genuinely different comic-book heroine, the early signs, when she skitters around in high heels, are not promising. Nor is her sprayed-on catsuit much of an improvement on the feminist front. Catwoman is smart, independent and capable, for which thanks, but giving her shoes a mere mortal could run in was clearly a leap too far.
The politics of the piece are spot on, with Gotham a cauldron of resentment against the rich, and civil liberties trampled in the name of fighting crime. Otherwise, Nolan does his comic-book duty by supplying towering levels of brooding and plenty of cool hardware but, above all, spectacle.
Whether he is playing to the gallery by bashing Wall Street, or calling up references to the Bible, revolutionary France, 9/11, even the siege of Stalingrad, Nolan picks from Eastern and Western culture like some demented magpie. These are trimmings, preparation for the action we've come to see. While the set pieces are not as awe-inspiring as those in Inception, there is more than enough here to make the heart race.
Once Nolan gets going, he's reluctant to stop. Never mind the muddle, embrace the chaos, and watch a British director prove, again, why he's the shining knight of the blockbuster business.
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