The Dark Knight Rises
* * * *
Cert 12A, 164 mins
Cinema goers are being well served this year for British crime fighters as two of filmdom's biggest franchises offer up their third (and in one case apparently final) acts.
Both of them feature men whose outer sophistication and nonchalance masks a troubled soul and disturbing aptitude for violence.
They also both love their toys (and by that I mean weapons of mass or minor and very creative destruction), with the access to a technical genius and apparently limitless funds necessary for indulging this.
Only one of them, James Bond, actively serves Her Majesty, but The Dark Knight Rises can be claimed to be as British as warm beer and wet summers purely because of the sheer weight of UK talent behind it or in it.
Apart from the fact that Gotham City so closely resembles Manhattan, there is a surprisingly limited American presence, even in the bits parts. Yes, that is Tom Conti in a prison pit, Burn Gorman as a villainous suit and Aiden Gillen as a CIA operative who is going to wish he'd packed a parachute in his carry-on luggage.
The problem facing both Bond and Batman is whether they can live up to the preceding movies. In the case of 007 Skyfall's task should be easier as Quantum Solace didn't quite match the critical bar set by Casino Royale.
For Batman, The Dark Knight has proven to be the trilogy's Empire Strikes Back or Godfather II. The third Dark Knight Rises to the occasion but does not better the films before it.
The two and three quarter hour running time allows Christopher Nolan to indulge himself in a leisurely unveiling of the plot and for tying up all conceivable loose ends, even dangling the tempting carrot of a way the franchise could continue without the involvement of either himself or Christian Bale.
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the shattering events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne, has hidden himself away in his manor, a recluse of Howard Hughes-like legend, physically battered and emotionally shattered by the death of the woman he loved.
He has also retreated from his vigilante alter ego. His sacrifice of taking the blame for the deranged Harvey Dent's crimes leading to Batman's vilification and the celebration of Harvey as a hero and symbol for good.
An anguished Albert (Michael Caine) pleads with him that he has hung up cape but he hasn't moved on and pursued the life that Rachel would have wished for him.
Rudely interrupting Wayne's grief stricken wallowing and ending Gotham's freedom from organised crime (thanks to the Harvey Dent Act) is Bane, a bull-necked, brick outhouse of a man with the fighting skills of a ninja and the ideology of Robespierre.
He first targets the stock exchange and then a football game in a complex but efficiently executed plan to secure a devastating weapon, all wrapped up in people's revolution rhetoric.
But given that the Gothamites don't seem to be scrabbling to eat cake for a lack of bread and are living in a relatively peaceful city, there seems to be little visible reason for the rebellion he is staging.
However, the riots that blighted our own cities and towns last year demonstrated that some don't need much of an excuse to loot their way to a better lifestyle, and the targeting of financial institutions seems prescient in these times of bank bashing.
Soon the city is held hostage, the mob rules while the majority cower at home, the police are penned and powerless and the rest of the country seems content to let Gotham sort itself out.
Batman's face off against Bane carries echoes of Rocky III as, in spite of the faithful retainer's warnings, the aging and injured fighter enters a battle he cannot win against a meaner, hungrier opponent.
Bane then condemns the broken Bruce Wayne to the conditions that moulded him, the illusion of hope that he might escape intended as a slow torture. But it further highlights the commonalities between the two, from their League of Shadows training to the psyche-shaping effect of being thrown in a deep pit.
New characters for The Dark Knight RIses are Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) an idealistic young police officer in the Jim Gordon mould who tries to organise the resistance in Batman's absence.
And Anne Hathaway pours, or should that be purrs, her way into a tight black cat suit as the feline Selina Kyle, a resourceful and self-serving thief straddling the fence between good and evil.
She even gets to play with Batman' most fun toy, the bat bike, though Chris Nolan seems to be indulging his Men and Motors fantasies as she arches over it like a glamour model across the hood of a muscle car.
Marion Cotillard crops up, in a rather under written role, as a love interest for Bruce, as a member of the Wayne Enterprises board who apparently shares his interest in clean, green energy.
While Tom Hardy, as Bane, exhibits his usual chameleon like ability to inhabit a character, he cannot match Heath Ledger's gleefully anarchic and creepily charismatic turn as the Joker.
His pseudo-revolution also frustratingly lacks logic (why target a football ground? Hallowed ground for the average Joe).
And the Hannibal Lecter like face mask (masks are a theme Nolan keeps returning to in this) distorts his voice so that times he is unintelligible and when he's not, sounds like Darth Vader doing a bad Sean Connery impression. This in a film where the hero already needs subtitles as he growls out his words as if he is gargling rocks.
The lengthy running time gives the audience time to pick over the holes in the plot (such as why is the batsuit not impervious to knives) and also means the pace drags. It is a nearly 45 minutes before Batman first appears and it feels a long time between action sequences.
It is a violent yet bloodless movie, many people die but it flinches away from a lingering coup de grace to hold onto its 12a rating.
The Dark Knight Rises certainly isn't the low note of a Godfather III, but a fitting end to the franchise.
Nolan sticks to his dark and serious superhero guns, a template he established in Batman Begins.
But it isn't as viscerally thrilling as it could have been. By playing a long game, Nolan has come up a little short. AJ
►Next page: More reviews, including Birmingham-made film Tortoise In Love, Polisse, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, The Hunter and the reissue of Chariots Of Fire.