It's been a while since a franchise movie gave me so many enjoyable opportunities to say, "No way," "Oh no, they didn't" and "I never saw that coming." Yet "The Dark Knight Rises" nods to the pleasures of the earlier installments, from surprise cameos to cinematographer Wally Pfister's vertiginous visuals echoing 2005's "Batman Begins" and 2008's "The Dark Knight."
Nolan spent a reported $250 million giving us all our money's worth. The film opens with a grandiose action sequence, a mid-air plane hijack that is only an appetizer for the epic battles to follow. It builds to disaster-movie scenes of Gotham City collapsing, aerial dogfights as thrilling and agile as a "Star Wars" shootout, and cast-of-thousands brawls between criminal mobs and Gotham City's finest. As an older cop tells his rookie partner when Batman's super-souped-up motorcycle joins their tire-screeching chase, "You are in for a show tonight, son!"
That first blast of Bat-action does not occur until 50 minutes into this cerebral 2¾-hour blockbuster. Nolan tells a complex, expansive tale, and he takes his time putting the elements in place.
The time is eight years after Batman took the fall for killing crusading DA Harvey Dent.
Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has used the Dent Act's sweeping powers to imprison those suspected of wrongdoing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is in retirement, disillusioned and physically crippled by his vigilante career.
There are still pockets of criminality in the land, though. At a tribute to Dent at Wayne Manor, cat burglar Selena Kyle (a wickedly slinky Anne Hathaway) makes off with valuables from Wayne's safe, beating him up and kidnapping a congressman in the process. If that's not enough to get his crime-fighting juices flowing, she taunts him, "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, 'cause when it hits you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."
That storm is spearheaded by the fearsome Bane (Tom Hardy), a one-man wrecking crew from the League of Shadows, the same Himalayan vigilante cult that trained Bruce Wayne. Bane is intent on wiping away Gotham's conniving politicians, freebooting financiers and everyone else in a brutal act of moral cleansing.
The story, by Nolan, his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, treats its comic-book material with unflagging intelligence. Yes, the villains still pause to gloat and explain their master plan when they have the hero in their clutches -- will they ever learn? Logic surrenders in the face of the film's breakneck momentum, but Nolan's work is so assured that when a chase scene flips from daylight to night in a single cut, we don't protest.
Nolan's cerebral, dour films are never morally tidy. Bale digs deep into his character: Is the eccentric millionaire playing the Batman, or is the masked avenger impersonating Bruce Wayne? Commissioner Gordon is wracked with guilt for hiding Harvey Dent's identity as the murderous Two-Face. Alfred Pennyworth (an affecting Michael Caine) castigates himself for failing to guide Bruce toward a life in which love and everyday pleasures weigh more than vengeance.
The denouement, a cascade of startling reversals and reveals, wraps up the story tidily while leaving enough wiggle room for additional follow-ups. Throughout the three-film arc, Bruce Wayne has been courting death. Nolan's finale gives us the inevitable with generous portions of suspense, surprise and delicious shock.