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Reviewed: 'The Dark Knight Rises' 

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

***1/2

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Batman's death are greatly exaggerated.

I'm not referring to the fate of the character in The Dark Knight Rises, as that would be a spoiler of such gargantuan proportions, even I would agree that a public hanging should be my proper punishment. But since this is writer-director Christopher Nolan's final film in the franchise, the advance buzz indicated that the option of killing off the leading character was on the table, and the media has done its part to play up the suspense (Entertainment Weekly, for example, has teasingly called its story on the movie "Batman's Killer Finale").

Instead, I'm referring to the fate of the franchise itself, a series that got off to an exceptionally hot start with Batman Begins and then topped itself with The Dark Knight. The third time's usually not the charm when it comes to blockbuster sagas (X-Men, Spider-Man, The Matrix, need I continue?), but any worries that the trilogy drives itself off a cliff with this concluding entry are completely ill-founded. The Dark Knight Rises may not match the giddy heights of its predecessors, but it often comes damn close.

Set eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, this picture finds a Gotham City largely at peace with itself. Only Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his family know that white knight D.A. Harvey Dent turned into the monstrous, murderous Two-Face before getting killed in a skirmish with Batman (Christian Bale). Sensing that Gotham needed a true hero, Batman allowed himself to be painted as the murderer of a still-decent Dent, a decision that, as this film opens, has led to an era of civility but also has kept Batman off the streets, with alter ego Bruce Wayne going the Howard Hughes route by keeping himself locked up in stately Wayne Manor under the worried eye of faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine).

But Bruce's days of being a recluse are over once a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into his safe, ostensibly after a pearl necklace but actually after something that will prove damaging to the billionaire. Her theft leads Bruce to once again join the outside world, a place where, as Selina puts it, "a storm is coming." Selina repeatedly encounters Bruce both in and out of his superhero costume, but she isn't the real threat to either him or the city at large. That honor goes to Bane (Tom Hardy), a man-mountain so intimidating that even Alfred urges his master to run the other way.

The Dark Knight Rises brings back several familiar faces - Wayne Enterprises' trusted inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), of course, but also a pair of noteworthy villains - and introduces two newcomers to the fold. The first is socialite Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and while this character initially seems superfluous, her role takes on greater importance once she becomes cozy with Bruce. The other, more interesting character is rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who's so altruistic that he almost makes the noble Commissioner Gordon look like a hardened criminal by comparison.

Blake and Alfred interestingly take turns providing our hero with a moral compass, with the former declaring that Batman needs to save the city and the latter insisting that Bruce Wayne needs to save himself. The beauty of this dichotomy as presented by Nolan (once again co-scripting with his brother Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) is that both men are right, and the challenge for Bruce/Batman is to sacrifice neither Gotham nor his own life. That's a tall order, though, what with Bane instigating a reign of terror that topples the local government, neutralizes the police force, and pits the citizens of Gotham against each other.

If there's a flaw in The Dark Knight Rises, it's that the midsection sags: The scenes of Bane taking over could stand being trimmed, and there's a lengthy chunk when Batman seems like a supporting player in his own saga. The film isn't overlong even at 165 minutes, but some of that middle-act excess would have been better served by more Bale, more Caine, and especially more Hathaway. The rumors that the supposedly miscast actress would sink this film with a wretched portrayal were clearly off the mark: Hathaway doesn't quite own the role as Michelle Pfeiffer did in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, but she's nevertheless one of the highlights of this new endeavor. Her Selina Kyle (interestingly, she's never called Catwoman in the actual film) is a fascinating character, a possibly bisexual beauty (Juno Temple's Holly seems more like her GF than her BFF) whose athletic prowess is matched not only by her sharp intellect but also her quirky sense of humor. She provides The Dark Knight Rises with most of its levity; the rest of the time, this brooding, bruising movie is content building its reputation as a black beauty.

 

 

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