Thursday, 9 August 2012

My first film review: the year of the bat?


So I went to see The Dark Knight Rises the other night, proving - once and for all - that I do get up to things that don't involve (a) reading books, (b) writing about those books, or (c) shaking my fists about the poor quality of what passes for public policy in our times. It's nice to get out and about now again, isn't it?

So. My ears are still ringing, and my senses remain assaulted, by the vast, noisy, complicated, dingy, aggressive surge of filmaking that I looked at, open-mouthed, as the film made one damn fine effort to impress me. I'm sure I saw the kitchen sink fly past at one point, but still.

There was much to admire about this new Bat. For the first hour, Christopher Nolan as director comes close to redefining the superhero genre itself, threatening to remake an entire cinematic inheritance and to reshape the very nature of the hero and the quintessence of what it is to make difficult decisions in dark times. Plot-heavy and believable, it's here that the film scores its most abiding triumphs. The Dark Knight Rises, for more than a third of its run, looks and feels nothing like a superhero movie at all - a daring break with the spandex and derring-do of its early summer Marvel Avengers rival. Most of all, it's an ensemble piece. The central 'hero' can only succeed with the help of a huge team of extras and helpers, all of whom suffer for their attachment to him. That's a big change from the 'one man can make a difference' verities of American road drama and local heroism (1980s action hero Michael Knight, take note).

After that, though, the ear-ringing chaos descends. The Gotham City denouement (I'm trying not to give too much away here) lapses slightly back into traditional caped-crusader-with-gadgets mode. The payoff at the end is rather too pat for my tastes - especially as the audience has been teased with an impending sense of doom for nigh-on two and a half hours.

There's an annoying seven or eight minute sequence in the middle, where the film veers rather too much towards its Tale of Two Cities source material. Once the forces of law and order are out of the way, the city erupts into a posh-bashing frenzy which has the poor old denizens of Fifth Avenue out scrabbling in the gutter with their poodles. Revolutionary courts spring up. The revolution begins to turn in on itself. What a surprise. Stop me if you've heard all this bit before. It's not overtly political, despite the attempts of Guardian types to make it so, but it sure is crude and mishandled. 

More importantly, something philosophical is missing - some existential break with the past along the lines of the film's low-key opening, all characters, talk and narrative. Some of the early promise bleeds away later. How much better would it have been to have followed the film's source material, and broken Bruce Wayne, both physically and mentally? How much more satisfying to have had the courage of Nolan's nuclear-explosion convictions, and for the big bang to have wiped out The Bat entirely? Could the riot sequences have been edited more cleverly, to excise the jarring sense of a mob on the rampage mere seconds after the police had disappeared from the city's streets?

So it's not quite up there with must-see, jaw-dropping, kick-yourself-in-the-head, eye-poking action classics - it's not a Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, a Jackie Chan's Police Story 3. Close, but only half a cigar.

But you should still see it. It's big, bold, clear-eyed, adult, angry, suspenseful, rageful and sometimes even shocking. It's still resonating inside my head a week later, like I've stood inside a great big bell while someone was hitting it with a huge hammer. Go on. You won't regret it.

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