Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman
Tom Hardy as Bane
Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle / Catwoman
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake
Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon
Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox
Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate
Michael Caine as Alfred
Juno Temple as Holly Robinson
Aidan Gillen as CIA Agent
Matthew Modine as Deputy Commissioner Foley
Nestor Carbonell as Mayor Anthony Garcia
So let's get the obvious out of the way up front. No, it's not as good as "The Dark Knight." That said, "The Dark Knight Rises" is probably as good a follow-up as you could reasonably expect, providing everything you could possibly want from a Batman film.
Except that it's not really a Batman film, though he is inextricably bound up in it. More so than any of the previous installments, "The Dark Knight Rises" is an ensemble film that just often includes Batman (Christian Bale) but just as often doesn't, spending large amounts of time with the investigations of young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the machinations of hulking villain Bane (Tom Hardy) or the crimes of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).
But, if Batman is not always readily present in "The Dark Knight Rises," it is always about him in a way none of the other films in the series has been, examining the reasons for his existence and asking hard questions about whether they're strong enough that he needs to stay around forever.
We pick up the action eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight" and time has not been kind to Bruce Wayne. The years of jumping from rooftops and onto moving cars have irrevocably damaged his body to the point where he needs help from hi-tech leg bracers to do more than limp. His sacrifice has helped bring Gotham to a point of general peace, however, and Wayne and his alter-ego have gone into general seclusion. That is until a beautiful cat burglar breaks into his home to steal his fingerprints, gradually seducing him back into the world crime and criminals once again.
There is a stark and unglamorous undercurrent to "The Dark Knight Rises" as it asks difficult questions about, among other things, accepting the eventual consequences of your life and dealing with the realization that you can't really go home again. Bale, who has grown immensely as an actor even since "The Dark Knight," has always presented something of a flawed Batman, a talented man who is prone to not giving his enemies enough credit due to the extent of skills, nor of seeing his own weaknesses. His older, broken Bruce Wayne is a man desperate to prove to himself that he is still the man he was, and refusing to admit that might not be the man he should be anymore.
As good as he is, he is nearly upstaged by Hardy's Bane, a hulking wall of a man with patience and cunning to match who is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, including nearly being thrown out of a plane. With a mask covering much of his face, Hardy's performance is largely body language and silky voice control, but he makes the most of it, commanding his scenes. That said, with the deep voice, the slow menace and the breathing sounds, it's often hard not to think about Darth Vader when he's around and for all his strengths he lacks a little in originality.
The rest of the supporting cast is nearly as good, though they benefit from a script (from director Christopher Nolan and brother Jonathan, based on a story by Nolan and David Goyer) that focuses on character as much as action and plot, giving everyone a moment to shine. Part of that is the sprawling length of the narrative, which allows major characters to disappear for long periods of time without losing too much in the way of presence in the film. Commissioner Gordon and loyal butler Alfred, in particular, only figure in about half of the film, and yet they always feel like they're around. Even the new women in Bruce's life, cat burglar Selina and wealthy business woman Miranda (Marion Cotillard) come and go as the plot dictates, making the best of the moments they do get.
As Bruce continues investigating what the beautiful Selina is up to and how she may be tied up with a dirty businessman on the Wayne Enterprises board of directors, he gradually becomes aware of wheels within wheels moving around him, particularly once a daring daylight raid on the Gotham Stock Exchange causes him to lose most of the vast resources he has taken for granted for so long. In typical Bruce fashion, he continues to barrel along, heading straight for a headlong confrontation with Bane without bothering to stop and think if he is really the man he used to be.
Ultimately, and not surprisingly, "The Dark Knight Rises" belongs to its director, not its actors or characters. All of Nolan's great screen interests are here as he fuses his themes about facing fear and human nature with his great love of science fiction devices and twisty crime plots. Bane's exact plan is labyrinthine and there are hints of a man behind the man in his backstory. "The Dark Knight Rises" is steeped not just in general Batman mythology but within its own, calling back to each of the previous films but particularly "Batman Begins" as the choices of Bruce's past come back to haunt him.
The end result is exquisitely crafted, with everything we deserve from action films but seldom get, even if it is not quite as relentlessly entertaining as "The Dark Knight Rises." The sheer length and breadth of its scope often robs the film of inertia, particularly during the climax which comes along suddenly before quickly shifting gears. And for all the excellent work done by all the actors, particularly Gordon-Levitt as a young cop representing Bruce's youthful idealism, Batman's own frequent absence from his own film is noticeable.
What flaws "The Dark Knight Rises" has are few and far between, with most of it hitting just the right note as it prances between the darkest depths and the most hopeful highs like a cat on a hot tin roof. There is a definite feeling of The End throughout that perfectly fits "The Dark Knight Rises" and allows us to look over what flaws it does have. This should be the blueprint for summer spectacle. You can keep your "Transformers," I'll take "The Dark Knight Rises."