I seem to have lost the taste for big-budget, all-action, things-exploding block-busting extravaganzas of late (I didn’t even catch the Olympics opening ceremony), although my spies tell me there have been a few worthwhile superhero reboots of late that have been worth a look (Avengers Assemble, which didn’t appeal as the title made it sound like it was going to be a documentary about how masked crusaders come flatpacked, and The Amazing Spiderman, which I turned down because I seem to remember watching a perfectly adequate Spiderman re-telling only about five minutes ago). I thought I should probably make an effort for The Dark Knight Rises, however, as I did really approve of Batman Begins, the first part of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of angst-ridden Gotham City based vigilantism, even if I found its follow-up The Dark Knight overlong and awkwardly structured, and unbalanced by Heath Ledger’s showboating performance as The Joker – it was electrifyingly watchable whenever he was on screen, but seriously draggy when he wasn’t.
So the good news, I guess, is that this third film is a definite improvement, at least in terms of pacing and coherence. It tells its story reasonably clearly, builds to some impressive setpieces which have real impact because the stakes have been properly prepared for the audience and while there are more subplots to keep an eye on than I’m completely comfortable with at least it doesn’t turn left into a completely different narrative two-thirds of the way through as the last film did. It’s efficient, even if it’s far from lean, what with all the heavy lifting required in the early stages to let us know what’s been going on with Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred the butler et al in the eight years since we last met them, and also establish a whole raft of new characters, a lot of whom just seem to be generic sleazy businessmen or police officers. Most eye-catching of the new guys are super-villain Bane, played behind a gimp mask by an unrecognisable Tom Hardy, who has an attractive if hardly original line in casual sadism and Nietzschean wisecracks, and Anne Hathaway’s feisty safe-cracker Selina Kyle, who’s never explicitly identified as Catwoman, although the ears are a bit of a giveaway. Also along for the ride are Marion Cotillard as entrepreneur and potential saviour of Wayne Enterprises Miranda Tate and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic young cop who you sense might be being set up for a more central role in the future.
You do need to concentrate a bit to keep up with how all these folk’s agendas fit together, and to be honest it’s not made any easier by the predominantly dark production design or by the way that a lot of Bane’s choice rejoinders are rendered indistinct by the distortion effect that’s been used on his voice, but I’m pretty sure the film plays fair and gives you all the information you need to make sense of it. By the midway point the nature of the baddies’ scheme has become clear and it’s certainly effectively realised on screen, with the various bangs and crashes and explosions coming over as satisfyingly physical and non-computer generated. A key to the success of these films is the vulnerability of Christian Bale’s Batman and he’s put through the mill good and proper here, suffering multiple reversals of fortune – he’s a much more interesting and rounded figure than any of the bad guys, whose motivation seems a little sketchy to me. Best of the new characters is Selina Kyle, who convinces as a properly conflicted human being and gets to deliver witticisms that are actually funny, while the holy supporting triumvirate of Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are as classy as you’d expect, Oldman excelling as the beating heart of the film. It’s a long movie, and in places a slightly wearying one, but I’d be surprised if I came across another action spectacular this…err…weighty…any time soon.