'The Dark Knight Rises:' Batman's last stand

Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as

Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as Batman face off in "The Dark Knight Rises." (Credit: MCT)

The Batmobile goes into long-term parking July 20 as "The Dark Knight Rises" -- the much, much anticipated follow-up to Christopher Nolan's two previous mega-grossing Caped Crusader movies -- launches its all-out assault on Gotham City, box-office records and the audience's sense of equilibrium.

Although Hollywood is never allergic to revisiting a successful franchise (see "The Amazing Spider-Man"), Nolan has said this is the last Bat trip for him. Which means saying adieu to a lot of characters who have become familiar since "Batman Begins" premiered in 2005.

"We knew after 'Batman Begins' there'd be another movie, and we knew after 'The Dark Knight' there would be another movie. And we knew after this that there wouldn't be another movie," said Morgan Freeman, who has played Wayne Enterprises brain trust Lucius Fox in all three installments. And is he feeling bittersweet?

"No, actually, and I don't want to sound ungrateful for the experience, but it's the end of something -- the end of making a movie. And when they say, 'It's a wrap,' you walk away. Those of us who've been in all three are of the opinion we can't top ourselves, so let's walk away with our laurels."

"It must be a bittersweet kind of reality for the studio," quipped actor Gary Oldman whose Police Commissioner Gordon -- whom Oldman has played three times -- has a more central role in the new film. "But I think, in a way, Chris is retiring as the heavyweight champion. He'll go out with a bang, and that's the way to do it." He said he didn't know what Nolan's next act would be, but "my instinct is he'll make something much smaller."

This is big

It would be hard to go much bigger. About half of the 160-minute film was shot in the IMAX format (as opposed to 28 minutes of "The Dark Knight"). The opening sequence -- involving a midair hijacking/kidnapping -- probably will be regarded as a classic. The vehicles are cooler and do cooler things. (The Tumbler, aka Batmobile, returns, and Catwoman gets to ride a Bat-pod.) The wreckage is more extensive. And, for good measure, there's a nuclear explosion.

Gotham City, in short, is in hot water: When we last visited, Batman (Christian Bale) was being blamed for the murder of District Attorney Harvey Dent -- who, in his grief and suffering, had become the vengeful Two-Face. Now, eight years later, Batman, hobbled and downbeat, has gone into seclusion at stately Wayne Manor. Crime is on the upswing. Terrorists are on the loose. Questions are on our minds.

Why, exactly, did Batman have to take the blame? Why is Gordon keeping the big secret about Harvey Dent? Why is a terrorist named Bane wreaking havoc across Gotham City?

All these questions and more may, in fact, be answered with the arrival of "The Dark Knight Rises." But don't count on it.

That old Hollywood pragmatist Samuel Goldwyn once said, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." One might add, "If you want to send a mixed message, call Christopher Nolan." Certainly, there are viewers who say they understand Nolan's visually arresting "Inception" (2010); there also are people who say they understand "Finnegans Wake."

A rep for the visual

With "The Dark Knight Rises" -- co-written with his brother, Jonathan -- Nolan may further his reputation as a director whose plot lines exist only to serve his visual art. Bane (Tom Hardy) and his fellow terrorists, acting like a muscle-bound Occupy Movement, attack Wall Street and its ruling 1 percenters, but their supposed anti-capitalist policies are soon exposed as a mere ploy, a means of terrorizing Gotham into subservience. Why do they want to take over Gotham City in the first place? It's not entirely clear. But when the Gotham police force starts charging down Wall Street to save the world, "The Dark Knight Rises" starts to feel like a campaign ad from a right-wing super-PAC. (Nolan, who doesn't like a lot of computer effects, filmed in downtown Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street, and the film has the sense of being filled up with real people.)

"It's certainly interesting, isn't it?" Freeman said. "Chris Nolan could very well have gotten some inspiration from some of the current stuff that was going. But it's a little dangerous speculating about a writer's intentions." Nolan has said in the past that "The Dark Knight Rises" was inspired by Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities": What the film suggests is that something like Occupy would lead to the murderous excesses of the French Revolution.

But excess is in the DNA of the Batman chronicles. So is moral ambiguity: Is there something dubious, we always asked, about a masked avenger taking the law into his own hands? Yes, and it's been part of the Batman story at least as far back as the Frank Miller graphic novels, which built on the Bob Kane original, but without Kane's more black-and-white take on goodness and virtue.

Nolan takes it a step further: In "The Dark Knight Rises," Hardy plays the villainous Bane behind a mask that suggests Hannibal Lecter and is said to provide a steady stream of anesthetic to numb his constant pain (inflicted when . . . no, you have to wait). As a side effect, it also makes him crazier.

But Bane believes in what he's doing. And so does Batman. Both Bane and Batman wear masks. Both their voices are distorted by their disguises. They both suffer excruciating pain (Batman has to go through major rehabilitation in "The Dark Knight Rises" before he can once again answer the Bat Signal). In some ways, you might say, they're the same guy -- which may be Nolan's mischievous last word on the whole subject.

Starry, starry 'Dark Knight'

BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday

Like any big American movie, "The Dark Knight Rises" has its "stars" -- in this case, Christian Bale as Batman, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Robin-like police officer John Blake. But in what suggests classic Hollywood studio tradition, the film also features a wealth of name actors in character roles -- performers who can, and have, starred in their own films, and can contribute their own fan base to the "Dark Knight" pot. The following are just a few of the bigger names in a cast that also includes Tom Hardy, Juno Temple and Tom Conti.

MICHAEL CAINE (Alfred Pennyworth) -- The English Morgan Freeman, Caine has played everywhere and for everyone, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Woody Allen and Alfonso Cuarón. His roles range from the title characters in "Alfie," "Get Carter" and "Harry Brown" to Mr. Morgan (in the upcoming "Mr. Morgan's Last Love").

MORGAN FREEMAN (Lucius Fox) -- The American Michael Caine, Freeman is everywhere, and that's good. He's currently starring in "The Magic of Belle Isle," won a supporting actor Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby," and has played everyone from Man on Street ("The Pawnbroker," 1964) to president of the United States ("Deep Impact") to God ("Bruce Almighty").

MARION COTILLARD (Miranda Tate) -- She was Oscar's best actress of 2007 for inhabiting Edith Piaf in the French-made "La Vie en Rose," making her only the second actress to win for a non-English-language role (Sophia Loren was the first). Cotillard has since been fortifying a lot of American movies ("Public Enemies," "Inception," "Contagion") as well as films on her home turf, such as this year's Cannes entry "Rust & Bone."

GARY OLDMAN (Commissioner Gordon) -- One of the world's more respected performers, often cited as a favorite by his fellow actors, Oldman is best known by younger audiences as Sirius Black in the "Harry Potter" series, and by older fans as the star of "Sid and Nancy" and "State of Grace." He received a best actor Oscar nomination last year for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," a performance as understated as "The Dark Knight Rises" is outlandish.

LIAM NEESON (Ra's al Ghul) -- Just this year, Neeson had one of his bigger successes with the hit "The Grey" and has long been associated with noble characters-cum-reluctant heroes -- as he was in "Unknown" as well as "Gangs of New York." Oscar-nominated for "Schindler's List," Neeson makes only a fleeting appearance in "The Dark Knight Returns," thus making the film seem even more like an embarrassment of riches.

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