Those worried that Christian Bale’s last cinematic undertaking as the tormented caped crusader would underwhelm can rest easy. The always reliable Brit helmer, an undisputed master of slickly cerebral cinematic cool, boldly torpedoes the superhero threequel curse, delivering a dense, emotionally resonant comic book epic that captures the imagination like that page-turner graphic novel you just can’t for the life of you put down.
Enter Bane. As inhabited by the brutishly imposing Tom Hardy, he’s a vicious, facial apparatus-sporting revolutionary who charges into Gotham with the supposed intention of taking down the wealthy elite in order to give the city back to “the people.” Of course, true to villainous form, there’s far more to Bane’s plan than just empowering the 99%. His feverish dream is to destroy Wayne body, mind and soul. As the billionaire playboy vigilante struggles to get back into fighting shape to tackle the maniacal mountain of a man, much to the consternation of loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine, dependably heartfelt), he draws the attention of John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a strong-willed beat cop with a similar history. He also finds himself caught between two wildly disparate romantic interests: environmentally conscious woman of means Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and periphery-dwelling jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). These distractions prove fleeting, though, once Bane slowly begins stripping away all that Wayne holds dear, forcing the erstwhile masked protector to look inwards and rediscover what it truly takes to become the Batman.
Despite the grim atmosphere, Nolan can deliver high octane geeky thrills with the best of ‘em. An opening plane hijack sequence is deliriously analogue in its staging – eschewing heavy CG in favour of stuntmen and daredevil practical work akin to the best Bond installments – as are scenes involving the beloved Batpod (which pulls off some killer hair pin turns). And just wait until you see the Bat, our hero’s tank-sized flying battle station! The film’s climactic half hour is a veritable orchestra of seamless virtuoso action that puts most city-demolishing blockbuster finales to shame.
This is arguably Bale’s best turn in the cape and cowl; the extra years and baggage suit him, and imbue the character with a junkie-ish desperation. Wayne, in his current mental state, is nothing without the costume, and armouring up feeds his addiction. At least until his first encounter with Bane, which allows the actor to rebuild his entire Batman persona and close out his take on the crusader with a bang. Supporting him, Hathaway is as ideal an on-screen Catwoman as we’ve seen. Seductive, dynamic and dangerous, she’s a dead ringer for the comic book anti-heroine and nails Kyle’s ability to adapt on a dime, whether theatrically transforming into a hysterical victim or a Bambi-eyed innocent. Levitt excels in a tricky role, portraying an unpredictably complex character that, on the surface, seems like a throwaway.
Tom Hardy had his work set out for him. Tasked with following up Heath Ledger’s iconic, Oscar-winning Clown Prince of Crime, the actor was saddled with a bulky S&M mask that leaves only his eyes visible, and cast as a B-level antagonist who is, frankly, not one of the Dark Knight’s more multi-dimensional rogues. Nonetheless, against these burdensome restrictions, Hardy has created a truly unique emodiment of evil. A rhetoric-spouting, military gear-clad battering ram – he’s more than a match for Batman in hand-to-hand combat – Bane just so happens to be an amusing study in contrasts as well. Thanks to his ever-present demonic headgear, he is, like the masses he aims to provoke, faceless, yet his creepy, mechanical cartoon walrus voice sounds too posh and polished to hail from lower-class origins. For all he may lack the Joker’s rock star charisma, he’s an undeniably hypnotic, unsettling and refreshingly unconventional presence.
It’s doubtful any sequel could have ever matched the hype and artistic alchemy of The Dark Knight, but where Nolan’s new film falters, it more than compensates with jaw-dropping sights, sounds (Hans Zimmer’s pounding, vital score is a crucial co-star) and crowd-pleasing showmanship. A dramatic close to the first great superhero trilogy, this is a tremendous achievement in big-screen myth-making that’s as poignant as it is utterly entrancing. If the Batman must soar into the ominous Gotham sunset, The Dark Knight Rises is a stunning and victorious exit.
4.5 out of 5
*Originally printed at Converge Magazine.