Watching "The Dark Knight Rises"-- all 2 hours and 44 minutes of it -- is like savoring a gourmet meal in a world where most of the food is flavorless, overprocessed or served in snack sizes.
It is the best movie of the year so far, comic book or otherwise, edging aside the relaunch of "The Amazing Spider-Man" and digging deeper than "Marvel's The Avengers" ever could.
Like a tailor stitching a hand-made suit, but borrowing the buttons or silk lining from a favorite old one, Christopher Nolan incorporates details and characters from the first two movies in a way that will reward anyone who remembers or revisits "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight."
4 stars = Outstanding
- Starring: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman.
- Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.
As director, co-writer and producer, he kept a steady hand on the trilogy starring Christian Bale in the title role, and it shows.
"The Dark Knight Rises," opening at 12:01 a.m. Friday, is a rich, smart, satisfying picture that answers all of the questions fans have been speculating about for months: Who lives or dies, if anyone? Is there a possibility of a sequel or spinoff? Are Batman, Bane and Catwoman the only ones wearing masks visible or invisible? And was sweltering in 89-degree temps at Heinz Field as an extra in August worth it?
It was for Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Bill Cowher -- the back of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's jersey is more visible than his face -- along with others who may spot themselves among the black-and-gold Gotham Rogues fans.
In fact, the contrast between the angelic, sweet voice of C.J. Coyne of Allison Park singing the national anthem on the field and the emergence of terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) from the shadowy tunnel is one of the best sequences in the movie.
The story picks up eight years after "The Dark Knight" and the death of the sainted Harvey Dent -- or that's the image sold to the public and burnished by the conflicted Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Bruce Wayne (Mr. Bale) is a wounded recluse, and long-absent Batman has been vilified since assuming the blame for the district attorney's death.
The Dent Act gave law enforcement the necessary teeth to clean up the streets of Gotham and crime has dropped dramatically -- if you don't consider fleet-footed and witted cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). She cracks a safe at Wayne Manor, steals the pearls inside, unapologetically utters "Oops" when caught and literally knocks the legs out from under Bruce Wayne and leaps out the window.
Alfred (Michael Caine) is increasingly worried and exasperated that Bruce hung up his cape and cowl but has yet to find a life and a purpose. "Maybe it's time we all quit trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day," Alfred says, even if that means losing the charge he cared for since his cries first echoed through Wayne Manor.
Like the father figures they are, Alfred and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) would love for Bruce to find romance again, possibly with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy philanthropist and Wayne Enterprises board member.
But there is no shortage of distractions as a key ally is injured, Bruce's fortune is targeted with skullduggery and Bane tries to break, literally, The Batman, and his city.
This is one movie that demands less description rather than more but, as a police officer tells a young cop when Batman reappears and streaks by: "You are in for a show tonight, son."
Batman gets a new toy in The Bat (you may have spotted it bouncing and bobbling atop a truck Downtown), Commissioner Gordon gets a protege in policeman John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), moviegoers get a fresh take on Occupy Wall Street and class warfare ("The rich don't even go broke like the rest of us") along with some old faces, new back stories and even a ticking clock.
Ms. Hathaway, who exercised her way into the unforgiving catsuit, is at her sassy, sexy and sensitive best while Mr. Hardy acts in spite of the mask covering much of his face, relying on his eyes, florid speech and enhanced voice and Hulk-size body. Mr. Gordon-Levitt is all boyish energy and earnestness as an observant cop promoted to detective during the story.
The scope is big and made for IMAX, while the fear, hope, allure of a clean slate and promise of a nearly biblical-style reckoning run as deep as the Batcave. Sympathy springs up in surprising places, the story is dense with developments, emotion, topical observations and even sprinkled with a little humor.
Heinz Field plays home of the Gotham Rogues, as Pittsburgh joins New York, Los Angeles and Newark in providing backdrops for Gotham, with other scenes shot in the United Kingdom and India.
The stately columns of Mellon Institute, doubling as the exterior of Gotham City Hall, are evident, but watch closely and you'll see the illuminated UPMC sign as The Bat flies over the city, a bridge in the frame near the Frank Bryan Inc. concrete supplier on the South Side, a stretch of Smithfield Street with signs for McDonald's and now-closed Saks Fifth Avenue, and a neighborhood in Lawrenceville.
As you might expect with a movie this long, it takes a while for the foundation to be laid and all of the strands to come together.
By the time it ends, you may want to repeat what Bruce Wayne says, with awe, to Lucius Fox upon surveying a new tool in his crime-fighting arsenal: "Oh, now you're just showing off." And, boy, are we glad you did.