Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (English; 2012)



There's a charming super-hero film, centered on a sassy-yet-restrained heroine, a cat-burglar who never loses her sense of humor or poise no matter what is happening to the world around her, who prefers the company of hookers and low-lifes to the dull and dreary of Official Gotham.

Alas, Christopher Nolan didn't make that film. Or perhaps, we should be grateful he didn't make "Catwoman," for fear that Selina Kyle's dark past overwhelm her verve. Instead, he's made a film where Kyle is able to do what she does best -- steal the show, right from everyone else's nose. Anne Hathaway, who plays Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, in Nolan's trilogy-ending monument of a film, is that kind of actress: she's no male fantasy of guns and boobs (a la Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2001)), nor the glamorous ice princess of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992); she's the wide-mouthed girl next door who just happens to be a very good actress, and always intelligently so (I doubt Hathaway could convincingly play a dunce). It's fitting that Hathaway's first scene features her in the slinky costume of a French maid, getting the better of Christian Bale's hobbling Bruce Wayne, before back-flipping out of Wayne Manor and into the car of a lecherous Congressman (Brett Cullen): none of the sombre (read: dull) or (in the case of the Congressman) dim-witted men who make up the rest of the cast can hold a candle to her nimbleness. This isn't method acting -- we see her coming a mile away -- just darn good fun, the way costumed characters are supposed to be. I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises in direct proportion to Hathaway's presence -- when she wasn't on-screen, I found the film plodding.

...which brings me to Batman. As I've grown older, I've lost my taste for Frank Miller-style philosophizing by way of a man in tights; instead, the Batman I find most appealing is the detective (with more than a dash of the occult) immortalized by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams in the 1970s, as much a descendant of nineteenth century sleuths and adventurers like Sherlock Holmes and the protagonists of H. Rider Haggard's fiction as of Golden Age super-hero comic books. (Just think about how many staples of the Batman Universe were born or re-born at the hands of O'Neil and Adams: Ra's-al-Ghul; Two-Face ("Half an Evil"); and even Joker -- "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge"). This isn't to deny Miller's seminal contribution to the Batman mythos (even if his most important legacy seems to have been enabling adults to consume the Batman guilt-free, as it were), but merely to remind everyone that there is a more fun way to do the Batman -- in fact, I like Miller's work more for what it enabled those after him (such as the duo of Marv Wolfman/Jim Aparo) to achieve, in combining the seriousness of purpose Miller brought to the character with the zaniness inherent in the notion of costumed crime-fighters, than for anything in his Batman comics (Miller's first run on Daredevil, ah, that's another matter).

Director Christopher Nolan doesn't agree, and never more so than in The Dark Knight Rises, a film so drunk on trite metaphysics only Hathaway remembers to let her hair down and have any fun. The problem is compounded because the story -- years after the action in The Dark Knight (2008), with Bruce Wayne now a recluse -- means that Christian Bale is much less attractive than he was in the first two films, his playboy avatar barely to be seen. And this time the baddies aren't psychos so much as a cabal that wants to bring Gotham to its knees as a kind of punishment, with Batman's defeat and banishment from Gotham merely the first part of the plan. Given that Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon is as boring as ever, and with neither Aaron Eckhart nor Heath Ledger, hardly any Cilian Murphy (at the risk of blasphemy, my favorite villain in any Batman film; his few minutes here at the helm of a Robespierrean "people's court" are magical, and given that he's made an appearance in every film in the trilogy, one could be forgiven for seeing in him the presiding imp of Nolan's world, were it not for the director's marked preference for more workmanlike characters), and Tom Hardy's Bane weighed down by all of Nolan's muddled political messages -- a film largely free of either Wayne or Batman for very long stretches (much longer than any in the preceding two films) could hardly be expected to escape the quagmire. It does not: The Dark Knight Rises sinks into turgidity with every hour, and no amount of slow-talking close-ups, nor Marion Cotillard's wasted loveliness, can rescue it.

Nolan’s Batman is himself all about high-technology and Triumph of the Will -- what detective-work there is falls to the lot of John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) of the Gotham police department, reminiscent of the Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing) of the mid-1990s (who himself becomes a cop), and a welcome presence in this film. Batman is content to evoke oohs and aahs from his audience (both on-screen and off-) by means of bikes with impossible tires and pirouettes, and choppers that look like vehicles for an alien invasion -- so much for leaving the 1950s behind. If a common thread ran through the work of O’Neill/Adams and Miller, it was the desire to strip away the encrustations that had come to obscure the DC comics myths in decades past (Krypto the Super Dog is simply untenable). Nolan, inoculated by Miller’s seriousness, re-imports far too many accoutrements -- this time, not in the service of 1950s- and 1960s-style childishness so much as to embed Batman in the fabric of law enforcement civic society. His Batman isn’t a masked vigilante, but the conscience of Official Gotham, a public service message in black leather -- well, I prefer Catwoman’s tights.

For all that, The Dark Knight Rises remains a deeply impressive film, not just in its use of the IMAX format (much has been made of the action sequences, but the aerial and wide-canvas shots are just as impressive), but in Nolan's devotion to old-fashioned, big ticket moviemaking. There are film industries all over the world, but Nolan remains faithful to the idea that Hollywood can mount a spectacle like none other, and that the industry ought not to cheapen the value of its spectacles by making them soulless exhibitions for the latest technology. In the sense of wonder it evokes, in its scale, and the knowledge that great action sequences -- such as the one at the start of the film -- are as much about choreography and editing as about technology, The Dark Knight Rises is part of an endangered breed in Hollywood. I doubt we'll be seeing its like any time soon.

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