Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises; less would have been more

The Dark Knight Rises is pretty heavy going, and after I'd sat through about the length of a normal movie, I figured out why. Batman himself is actually pretty dull. He's got tonnes of gadgets, but he's got no real personality and no sense of humour either, so you're kind of sitting there, waiting for the villains to give you a bit of fun. By the time I had figured this out, there was still something like an hour more of the movie to sit through, and it didn't get any better. It didn't get any worse, but I was reduced to keeping myself amused trying to figure out just how many cameos had been levered in. Who was that special forces guy who got killed after about six lines of dialogue? Could that really be The Rock? No, turns out it was Franco from Rescue Me, which meant I was probably the only person who recognised him even vaguely. Are any of these guys playing prisoners famous? Yes, it turns out, one of them was Tom Conti. Because Chris Nolan can get just anyone, these days, no matter how little they have to do. Could that really be Cillian Farrell slumming over there as the judge of all? Yep, it was. Matthew Modine playing the inept chief of police? My word, that's just who it is. What with Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy and Cillian Farrell, it was for all the world as though Nolan cleared his throat at the end of Inception and said "Did I say any of you could leave?"

I think that if we lived in a world where The Dark Knight didn't exist, The Dark Knight Rises would seem like a pretty good Batman movie. But Heath Ledger's Joker ruined movie villaindom for everyone else, somehow managing to find a way to play a maniac who made sense as a maniac. Villains in superhero movies don't usually have sensible plans, and you kind of have to roll with it if you're going to get through the thing without laughing in the wrong places. Ledger's Joker was somehow crazy enough that it made some kind of sense that he'd be doing insane things just for the fun of it, and just scary enough that you could believe that other people would go along with the plan for fear of what might happen if they didn't. And the scale of his operations was somewhat plausible. 

By contrast, Bane, the villain of the piece for tonight's feature presentation, is completely nuts and working on a scale too vast ever to make sense. And crucially, he's not funny. This is the script's fault; in Inception, Hardy's character got most of the good one-liners and made hay with them. If there was anything there that could be spun for fun, Hardy would have found a way. And Bane's got movie villain delegation syndrome; not since John Lithgow in Cliffhanger (a film which also featured a mid air assault on one plane from another one!) have I seen a criminal mastermind with such poor management skills. Killing your subordinates whenever they annoy you may well keep them on their toes, but after the first couple of weeks, they're mostly on their toes looking for a good place to stand when they stick a bunch of knives in your back. Yet somehow we're supposed to figure that this is a guy who attracts slavish loyalty from a huge gang of minions over a period of years. I could not get my head round that problem.

It falls to Anne Hathaway to plug the chuckle gap. As comforting news goes, this is kind of like being told that it will be Steve Buscemi's job to lead the elite team of commandos in hand to hand combat with space aliens; you want to believe this is all going to work out, but it's not how you would have planned it if someone had given you a blank sheet of paper. Catwoman's always in principle a fun character and Anne Hathaway does her best, but the material isn't always there. And there's precious little light relief from anyone else.

I have to make allowances; Nolan is setting out to make a set of serious movies about what superheroing would be all about, so he's going to be aiming for a certain portentous tone, but dear god in heaven; it's superhero movies. Ludicrously scaled villains. Maniacal revenge-driven plots which don't make a button of sense. A man wearing a mask he can never take off (which just left me wondering how he ate). A whole city cut off from the rest of the world and held hostage with a nuclear bomb for months. That's kind of balderdash, no matter how seriously you're pitching it. There's no point in being quite so po-faced about it.

As always, Caine is fun and Morgan Freeman twinkles reliably. Joseph Gordon Levitt once again steals the movie off the ostensible principal cast; I'm not sure what he does when he sets his mind to it, but he has few equals in the odd business of playing a smart guy trying to solve a problem. And there's any amount of pretty good set pieces, including the air assault at the beginning of the movie (Oh look, Aidan Gillen has added sleazy CIA contractor to his list of scumbag characters! And, oh, sure, it's completely unexpected that one of the three guys with bags on their heads will turn out to be the villain after all.) So it's not like this is a bad movie. It's just not a good Christopher Nolan movie, is all.

Without wanting to go all Joel Schumacher on it and have nothing but comedy villains with punchlines for every occasion, it would have been better with a funnier villain to balance the fundamental humourlessness of Christian Bale's Batman impersonation (Bale was quite wry as Bruce Wayne in the earlier films, but the downbeat tone of the whole movie has really cut that away). And it would have been better as a smaller, more intimate movie. Smaller stakes wouldn't have taken so long to set up, and would have been every bit as powerful as the over the top plot we actually got.

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