"The Dark Knight Rises" (*** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide) is a fitting conclusion to an artful trilogy, culminating with satisfying dazzle, despite some notable flaws.
Christopher Nolan's intelligent take on the classic Batman comic book saga is grounded in complexity, realism and grit. As in the previous two films, the plot is intricate and the characters are multidimensional.
However, while it's the most ambitious of the three films, it's not as mesmerizing as 2008's The Dark Knight. The plot is occasionally murky, its archvillain lacks charismatic menace, and the last hour is belabored.
Eight years have elapsed since Gotham has seen the caped crusader. His alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), has become a recluse, mired in sadness and loss. Wayne/Batman paid a high price for doing what he believed was in the best interest of his beloved city. But he is drawn out of his self-imposed exile by a cagey cat burglar and a masked terrorist who threatens Gotham's safety.
Amidst the sprawl are timely political elements, fomented by hulking terrorist Bane's (Tom Hardy) determination to liberate Gotham's citizenry from the shackles of government. Add in stock plunges and the demise of Wayne's fortune, and it's clear there are undertones of current sociopolitical forces like the Tea Party and Occupy movements.
While this adds substance to the tale, the pile-up of characters is excessive. This final chapter lacks the offbeat humor of The Dark Knight, mostly because no one can match the maniacal villainy of the late Heath Ledger's Joker.
Bane is hampered by an elaborate black mask that covers most of his face, with a mouthpiece that recalls Hannibal Lecter's muzzle. This apparatus makes it nearly impossible for Hardy to give a full-scale performance, and his Darth Vader-breathy dialogue is occasionally unclear.
Bale remains superb as the tortured hero, and the trajectory of his story comes to a poignant conclusion. The most moving scenes involve Wayne and his loyal butler/confidant, Alfred (Michael Caine).
A buoyant chemistry flares between Bale and Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle/Catwoman. Hathaway offers a charmingly fresh take on her character - less feline (no purring, thankfully) and more acrobatic, playful and assertive than previous incarnations.
Less impressive is the rather bland Marion Cotillard as environmental conservationist Miranda Tate, positioned as Wayne's love interest though they lack chemistry.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is affably noble as dedicated police detective John Blake, a role that could figure into a potential spinoff.
The opening sequence of aerial mayhem is more hectic than riveting. But the film takes off from there, making for a compellingly superb first hour. Elaborate scenes of mass peril are perfectly calibrated for maximum tension. Visual effects are strikingly seamless, but long periods while the city is under siege drag, and scenes in an old world prison grow repetitive. A plot twist comes too late to the necessary impact.
What stands out most, particularly on IMAX screens, is the film's gorgeous cinematography. Nolan's beautifully framed shots are remarkably artful, such as the first quick glimpse of Wayne in the reflection of a silver platter.
Nolan also skillfully juxtaposes sound and silence to heighten a mood. In a few scenes, however, Hans Zimmer's musical score approaches bombast, but then dials down and intensifies the action. Scenes of eerie quiet are particularly powerful.
"A hero can be anyone," says Bale as Batman. But it's impossible to imagine anyone as pitch-perfect as Bale in the heroic role.
And no one could have told the saga better than Nolan.
By Claudia Puig