The Dark Knight Rises (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: July 18th, 2012

Every story hinges on something to care about, and with larger-than-life comic book movies, that hook is even more important. Batman Begins delivers on a sweeping origin story — the first moments of a true hero. The Dark Knight downplayed its defender of justice to make way for a villain who struck true fear into our hearts, making us pray for someone could put an end to the unfiltered chaos. The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan's third installment in his Batman franchise, packs a whole lot of cinematic stuff into two-and-a-half hours, but never sparks with a particular emotional undercurrent. On an entertainment scale, sizzling performances and large-scale action are outweighed by a clunky script. Dark Knight Rises unleashes tons of ideas, but rarely are any worth caring about.

The film picks up eight years after The Dark Knight, when Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is in hiding for a crime he didn't commit: the murder of D.A. Harvey Dent. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) knows the truth of Dent's demise, but the untimely death invigorates the police of Gotham in unprecedented ways. Crime has all but vanished in the city, and for nearly a decade, Gotham hasn't really needed a Batman. It's not until hulking mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives on the scene, ready to strike up city-wide destruction without mercy, that Batman sees his new purpose. The emergence of the menacing threat — along with the appearance of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar with bigger plans than just jewel thievery up her sleeves — pulls Batman out of retirement. Unfortunately for Mr. Wayne, kicking butt as a caped crusader isn't like riding a bike, and the playboy-turned-superhero overestimates his abilities to take on his muscled foe. Batman is no match for Bane, who cripples the city from the inside out with terrorism that turns Gotham into an anarchistic jungle.

Even with a padded runtime, Nolan's epic conclusion (which he cowrote with his brother Jonah) feels unexpectedly rushed. The Dark Knight Rises is ambitious, continuing the arcs of its already-large ensemble while adding in a handful of new characters all with their own missions. The film (bat)caves under its own weight, presenting its concepts and plotlines in shotgun effect. Bruce Wayne's decision to return to the game, put his past and future aside, and take on a fight that could result in his demise, all in the name of a city that's disowned him, is enough material for one a movie. Add on Kyle's struggle to wipe her own slate clean, Oldman's investigation of Bane, newcomer cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his obsession with Batman and being a stand-up citizen, businesswoman Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) attempts to save Wayne Enterprises from nefarious shareholders, and the dozens of side characters who get their moment in the spotlight, and the movie starts to feel… overstuffed. The film races to introduce and explain everything, cutting back and forth between perspectives to jarring effect. It's not until the latter half of the movie, when Nolan cuts the fat, unites his cast, and allows a singular imperative to dictate the action that The Dark Knight Rises finds its groove.

While The Dark Knight Rises may make little sense, it's empowered by its cast. Christian Bale, who took a backseat in The Dark Knight, unifies the trilogy with his best Bat-performance yet. Bale captures the highs of Bruce Wayne as he dabbles with the upper echelon of Gotham, the lows that come with defeat at the hands of an enemy, and the general struggle of Wayne's heroic undertaking. It's physical, it's emotional, it's primal. For the first time, we see Batman up close, acting like a human being under his costume — a powerful image. And Hathaway packs the same punch. Catwoman mesmerizes her opponents with charm and strikes them down with ferocity. The character isn't given enough time to be gracefully fleshed out, but Hathaway shines every moment she's on screen.

Gordon-Levitt gives additional oomph to his detective-with-a-heart-of-gold, while the stunning Cotillard makes for a sweet, calming romantic counterpart for Bale's Wayne. Both characters are paper thin, but the duo's skills keep them from suffocating. Completely wasted is Hardy as Bane, the villain's metallic sleep apnea-mask obstructing any glimmer of facial performance. Bane's muffled voice, an early complaint from viewers of pre-release footage, isn't so much a problem as the total disconnect it has from the character, as if it's all been added in after the fact. Whereas Heath Ledger's Joker was terrifying for being all too real and human, Bane is completely removed from the world around him. Unless he's punching Batman in the face, he's a non-presence.

Speaking of fisticuffs, The Dark Knight Rises is at its best when Nolan lets it rip with visceral fight scenes. If The Dark Knight was about getting in your head with chaotic non-action, Rises is about brute force, pitting Batman against Bane in a several no-holds-barred brawls and eventually amping up the scope into an all-out war. In contrast to Batman Begins, Nolan lets his fights play out without much editing interference; Bane rapidly pounds his enemies into dust and, thanks to unflinching photography and gut-wrenching sound, you can feel every hit. The franchise's signature chase scenes do feel repetitive this time around — daylight is the only twist to Batman zipping through Gotham's realistic cityscape — but Nolan continues to excite with his spectacular use of IMAX footage. The director employs it for the action (watching a Batplane chasing an armored vehicle through the Financial District is a thousand times cooler when the size is accurately depicted), but doesn't shy away from employing it in any moment of grandeur. Bane giving a speech? IMAX. Catwoman looking scared? IMAX. Random Gotham establishing shot? IMAX. The towering projection format is the way to see The Dark Knight Rises.

For all the talent on display, both behind and in front of the camera, The Dark Knight Rises is hollow at its core. Broadly and bluntly painting thematic concepts that never pan out, opening doors for characters without motivation, and throwing in last minute twists and moments of fan service that manage to undermine the fluidity and focus of the tale, Rises is an zealous, frustrating beast. It all comes back to caring about something — and one would hope that in a Batman movie, that something might be Batman. But when Bruce Wayne disappears for a large chunk of the movie's middle section, one wonders what this movie is supposed to be about. The Dark Knight Rises' orchestrated cacophony of sound and images often hold our attention, but the bombardment is never enough to overshadow that question.