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FILM REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

Categories: Movies

Ice-cold cinematography.

A thrumming drone of a soundtrack.

And, of course, Michael Caine.

Buckle up, kids. Christopher Nolan is back.

Seven years ago, Nolan changed the way we looked at superheroes. Batman Begins arrived as a thought experiment: what would a modern vigilante, a haunted orphan bent on a mission of revenge, look like? How would he fight? How would his city react?

With 2008's The Dark Knight, Nolan refined that image by pitting Batman against what he wasn't. As the principled hero's nemesis The Joker, Heath Ledger personified chaos and an unhinged psychosis.

Christian BaleChristian Bale as Bruce Wayne. (Warner Bros.)

Now, to the chagrin of fanboys everywhere, Nolan is closing the book on Bats. Though DKR doesn't have the ultimate opposition the late Ledger provided, in many ways it's a bigger picture than the second instalment -- literally, in terms of Nolan's expansive use of the IMAX format, and figuratively, in the sheer scope of its plot.

Picking up from the threads of The Dark Knight, the new film begins eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, Gotham's white knight-turned-villain (a secret harboured by Batman and Commissioner Gordon). When we first see Bruce Wayne again, he's a wasted relic. Hobbling around with a cane and bearing a goatee, he's the subject of whispered jokes that he's becoming Gotham's Howard Hughes.

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A brazen Wayne Manor break-in by Selina Kyle reanimates the crime-fighter. To the dismay of his faithful butler Alfred, Batman gets back in the game. But he's a wounded warrior now, more dependent than ever on his arsenal of tricks and toys.

Soon, bridges are blown up, the stock market is hijacked and, for a time, it seems as if Gotham is alone. Like The Dark Knight's treatise on justice and fate, Nolan and his screenwriting brother Jon bring Batman closer to our realm by targeting the One-Percent. In DC's gritty stand-in for Manhattan, their images of bridges blasted to dust and an island of skyscrapers turning into a war zone are potent.

This is where DKR is at its best: a dispassionate action thriller as audacious as it is impressive. In our CGI-addled age, Nolan is an old-fashioned filmmaker. May the lords of celluloid bless his cinematographer Wally Pfister, one of the last anti-digital holdouts. Nolan avoids CGI whenever possible, which means when you see the stunning opening -- featuring a mid-air hijacking -- you're watching a real plane plummeting over Scotland. To film a woman capable of controlling the Batcyclepod, Nolan recruited Jolene Van Vug, the first female motorcross rider to perform a backflip.

Joseph Gordon Levitt, Gary OldmanJoseph Gordon-Levitt, left, as John Blake and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. (Warner Bros.)

But if you apply that level of scrutiny to the story itself, The Dark Knight's comic book roots begin to show. The characters are stoic, but shallow, rarely deviating from their preassigned path. The always-capable Joseph Gordon Levitt is simply a good cop who gets better, a younger policeman standing in for the ailing commissioner. Matthew Modine is Deputy Commissioner Foley, more a politician than police officer. We know he's eventually going to crumple the minute we first lay eyes on him.

As Bane, a mercenary building his own private army, Tom Hardy is elemental. Physically, his Bane is monstrous, but little is said about why he wants to grind Gotham under his boots. Evil is as evil does, I guess.

Anne HathawayAnne Hathaway in character as Selina Kyle. (Warner Bros.)

Of all the new additions to Nolan's repertory company, surprisingly it's Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle who fares the best. She has always been an ace pitcher when it comes putting some spin on her delivery of lines. Here, she drips with scorn, scowling at the boys and their toys while she steals from the rich and gives to the poor (mainly herself). It's never quite clear which side Kyle is on, which is what makes her so watchable.

Then, there's the other woman in Wayne's life: Miranda Tate, the wealthy philanthropist over whom he unexpectedly swoons just weeks after crawling out of his cave. Tate is played with a haughty air by Marion Cotillard, the French actress who Nolan adores and for whom he delayed the production. Still, the director forgets to outline the reason for Wayne's affection (beyond Cotillard's radiant glow from the recent birth of her first child.)

A look back at Batman Begins and even further into the Nolans' oeuvre indicates the brothers have a knack for precisely crafted plots. In The Dark Knight Rises, you'll find the pieces slip together with more than a few breathtaking twists. But, if you're looking for the motivation behind it all, you're probably better off revisiting the source material, including the Batman comic book collections Knightfall, No-Man's Land and The Dark Knight Returns. Where viewers of the film might be hard pressed to explain how easily Bane gathers his underground army, in the comics, creator Frank Miller painted a vivid picture of a lost, aimless generation looking for a leader.

Visually, DKR is sumptuous. Chances are you'll want to watch it again just to take in the vertigo-inducing footage (I know I do). However, as you savour the Batcrafts and the film's complicated climax, don't peer too closely at the details. DKR is at its best a ride built by one of contemporary cinema's master mechanics.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5

BaneTom Hardy stars as the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. (Warner Bros.)

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