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(2012) (Christian Bale, Tom Hardy) (PG-13)

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Action/Drama: A superhero must come out of retirement to deal with yet another villainous threat to his beloved city.
It's been eight years since Batman (CHRISTIAN BALE) -- billionaire Bruce Wayne in costume and equipped with various high tech tools and weaponry -- defeated a villain who was intent on destroying Gotham. But the superhero ended up blamed for the death of a district attorney whose work posthumously cleaned up the streets and filled the prisons. Since then, the caped crusader hasn't been seen, which pretty much holds true for Bruce who's gone into self-imposed seclusion, much to the chagrin of his long-time family butler, Alfred Pennyworth (MICHAEL CAINE).

He's not the only one upset with him, however, as Bruce's lack of attention to Wayne Enterprises has meant dwindling business returns. That has lead board member Lucius Fox (MORGAN FREEMAN) concerned, although he continues to use his resources to secretly build new high tech tools for Batman should he ever return. Fellow board member Miranda Tate (MARION COTILLARD) wants Bruce to take the covers off his now long-shuttered nuclear fusion project, but it's board member Roland Daggett (BEN MENDELSOHN) who has more nefarious goals.

He's employed hulking but highly intelligent mercenary Bane (TOM HARDY) to do his dirty work for him, which starts with abducting Russian scientist Dr. Leonid Pavel (ALON ABUTBUL), while cat burglar Selina Kyle (ANNE HATHAWAY) has been paid to lift Bruce's fingerprints from his mansion as part of the master plan. Her involvement with a missing congressman has drawn the interest of local cop John Blake (JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT) who reports to Deputy Commissioner Foley (MATTHEW MODINE) and his big boss, Commissioner Lt. Jim Gordon (GARY OLDMAN).

When Bruce catches Selina in the act, his interest is piqued and his investigation into her actions soon leads to his discovery that Bane has far more dangerous desires than just being Daggett's heavy. As the situation unfolds, Bruce must decide whether to bring Batman out of retirement and then figure out how to deal with the chain of events that Bane and his goons have unleashed on the city.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
I've said it before and I'll probably repeat it until my very last review: A protagonist or hero -- and thus the film in which they appear -- is only as good as the antagonist that they face. And that holds true for any genre where the main character must overcome some obstacle, human or otherwise and physical or psychologically based, to achieve whatever goal they might desire. You can have a smart script, terrific performances, stellar direction and great special effects, but if the villainous element is underwritten, you have, at best, a mediocre film, and usually a disappointing one at that.

Of course, such hero/villain scenarios are easier to identify in action films and particularly in superhero related ones. In that regard, director Christopher Nolan hit what's arguably the cinematic zenith with "The Dark Knight," his 2008 film that served as the second part of his reimagining of the Batman character and legend.

Following "Batman Begins," "TDK" was a near perfect film -- superhero or otherwise -- that benefitted from the director's stellar vision of the Caped Crusader, a terrific, exciting and engaging blend of action and psychological drama, and an out of this world performance by Heath Ledger as Batman's nemesis, The Joker. It was the performance of a lifetime that, tragically, was the last complete one for the actor who died after the film wrapped production.

That death, plus early footage of Ledger's brilliantly creepy take on his character, generated a lot of interest in the movie and turned it into a monster hit. Unfortunately, it also raised the bar incredibly high, not only for superhero films in general, but also for Nolan's last entry in his trilogy and especially the poor sap who would have to follow in the late actor's footsteps and inherit the role of Batman's next foe.

That person would be Tom Hardy and he and Nolan wisely go in a different direction in crafting and portraying the villain Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises." Imposingly big and muscular (in contrast with his predecessor's more slender build), waxing philosophical while embodying a further advanced notion of the real-life Occupy Wall Street movement, and wearing a partial face mask that sort of gives off Darth Vader vibes, Hardy's villain is a sight to see and a believable one at that.

Sadly, he must reside in the shadow of Ledger's character and our memory of that -- even if The Joker is never directly referenced -- while Nolan faces the uphill battle of trying to match or perhaps even exceed his second chapter. Probably to no one's surprise, he doesn't manage to do either, and while I had a few issues here and there with the pic, it's still an impressive offering all around and a terrific wrap-up to the trilogy. Considering that the conclusion sets up a continuation of the character (and others), I must paraphrase Mr. T by saying I pity the filmmaking fool who decides to follow Nolan's brilliant work.

Operating on both a grand scale (the action scenes are nothing short of technically immersive perfection) and a more personal and intimate one where our hero must face all sorts of internalized demons, Nolan again delivers a superhero tale that feels grounded in gritty reality rather than the colorful fluff that passes as other entries in the genre. To say that this film and something like "The Avengers" don't remotely feel as if they belong in the same category is an understatement.

Opening with an in-flight plane hijacking sequence that would easily fit into a James Bond flick, the story then segues to our physically and psychologically damaged hero (Christian Bale returning once again to play Batman and his billionaire playboy alter-ego, Bruce Wayne) who's retired the costumed persona and gone into self-imposed seclusion short of going full-blown Howard Hughes.

A surprise visit by a cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, easily allaying concern of her being able to satisfactorily embody Selina Kyle -- a.k.a. Catwoman, although the character is never referred to that on screen) piques his interest and eventually leads him to Bane's nefarious plan. Combining elements that surfaced during the current and preceding Presidential administrations, the villain unleashes the poor and downtrodden (not to mention a bunch of prisoners) onto the rich to put the latter into their place, while also threatening to blow up Gotham and everyone in it with a nuke that's been fashioned out of a retrofitted fusion reactor.

All of which means the film becomes a mixture of a psychological drama featuring a hero who must overcome internal and external demons, a social commentary on the shape of things now and to come, and a more generic (if still enthralling) "find the bomb before time runs out" story angle. The latter involves the return of Gary Oldman as the city's police commissioner and the introduction of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a street cop who goes above and beyond the call of duty and has his idealistic eyes opened in more ways than just one.

Both are good in their parts (with the latter seemingly earmarked for a continuation of the series in some fashion), but Marion Cotillard is pretty much wasted as an apparent do-gooder who wants Wayne's fusion reactor program restarted as a means of giving the world endless clean power. While some nuance is added to her character late in the third act, she otherwise can't do much with her underwritten part.

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman reprise their roles and are decent, but the likes of Matthew Modine embody characters that unnecessarily crowd the story with too many bodies and minor plotlines that don't add much to the mix and easily could have been jettisoned.

And that's readily apparent in the film's 165-some minute runtime. "TDK" also clocked in at more than two and a half hours but felt much tighter and streamlined, and while -- for the most part -- this latest offering flew by fairly quickly, various elements could have been removed with no ill effect. Technical work (cinematography, editing, all of the effects, costumes, score, etc.) is excellent across the board.

All told, I really liked the film, but let's be both honest and realistic. There was little to no chance that it could have matched its predecessor and it doesn't, mainly because Hardy's villain (above average in its own right) simply is no match for the show-stopping work of Ledger in the last outing. Better and certainly deeper than most other superhero pics, but not able to match the brilliance of "TDK," "The Dark Knight Rises" nonetheless rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 17, 2012 / Posted July 20, 2012

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