Early in "The Dark Knight Rises," director Christopher Nolan's epic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, the ever-loyal Alfred Pennyworth confronts a crippled, withdrawn Bruce Wayne who has been living like a recluse in Wayne Manor since he gave up the Bat cape eight years earlier.
"You're not living," Alfred says emotionally. "You're just waiting for something bad to happen."
Then something bad -- very, very bad -- does happen in the form of the brutal Bane who has come to a peaceful Gotham City to lead his own devious, evil version of the Occupy movement, a revolution against the city's wealthy and powerful. Oh, and he's brought a whole army of thugs and mercenaries with him. Alfred's worst fear comes true: the
Batman will return to the streets for what, given the power of Bane, may be his last battle.
Make no mistake about it, "The Dark Knight Rises" is a spectacular show. The visuals are extraordinary. The action sequences are dazzling, especially so since Nolan uses very little CGI and relies instead on old-fashioned stunt work. It will be hard to shake some of the images, whether it's the stunning midair plane hijacking that opens the film, Batman tooling through Gotham on his cool toys or Bane blowing up a stadium during an NFL game.
But the real power of this final chapter is just how intelligently it melds references to and commentary on modern concerns while staying true to his comic book roots and including those touches that
fanboys love like the addition of Selina Kyle (the Catwoman, although she's never called that) to the cast of characters.
Nolan and his brother Jonathan, a frequent collaborator, have written an audacious take on the Batman myth that draws from elements of Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, "Dark Knight," and from the Bane-driven "Knightfall" series from the mid-1990s without copying them. They touch on real world fears of terrorism, collapsing economies and domestic extremism. Underlying the whole script is the greatest terror of all: that, someday, everything in our lives will spin completely out of control.
"There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," Kyle purrs at one point. "You and your friends better batten down the hatches, 'cause when it hits, you're gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."
To lay out the storyline in too much detail dances on the edge of spoiler, given the significant number of twists, turns and surprises Nolan tosses in along the way. He never cheats, including enough clues to what's coming that nothing really comes completely out of left field.
While there is no performance quite as wondrous as the late Heath Ledger's as the Joker
in "The Dark Knight," the cast's work is sterling from the big names to the smallest roles.
Christian Bale was fine as the Batman in the first two films but he is even better here, adding nuance and shading that wasn't there before. Anne Hathaway provides some badly-needed zest and sarcastic wit (she gets most of the good lines) as Kyle. "Dark Knight" veterans Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucien Fox) and Michael Caine (Alfred) are at the top of their games.
Tom Hardy has the hardest role as Bane since he's asked to speak all his lines through a mask that makes him sound like Darth Vader without the heavy breathing. Even with that handicap, he still manages to project a feeling that Bane may not be the completely mindless brute he appears. Keep an eye on the luminous Marion Cotillard ("Inception," "Midnight In Paris") who provides just the right measure of allure, smarts and mystery as wealthy philanthropist Miranda Tate. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a wonderful performance as young police officer John Blake, who plays a big role in the film.
There are some problems. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, it is a draining film and you may find yourself yearning for a bathroom break. There are more a few holes in the storyline. And there is at least one major continuity issue when one scene starts in broad daylight and abruptly ends in the dead of night. (Even in Gotham, it doesn't get dark that fast.)
But even those flaws don't keep Nolan's "Dark Knight Rises" from being a superb bit of work from a truly visionary filmmaker and a marvelous final installment on a grand retelling of the Batman saga.
As a cop tells a younger partner when Batman first reappears, "Boy, you're in for a show tonight, son." And, indeed, it's been quite a show.
Rating: PG-13 (for intense action and some sensuality and violence) Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine Director: Christopher Nolan Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes