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'Dark Knight Rises' offers spectacularly enjoyable battle of good vs. evil

REVIEW: Mixing themes from the French Revolution, Occupy Wall Street and Sept 11, “The Dark Knight Rises” takes on terrorism and civilian uprising with impressive focus, and, considering the inherently dark nature of the film, a lot of spectacularly enjoyable moments.

The nearly three-hour tale reaches epic proportions when multifaceted good versus ambiguous evil must face off, but there’s enough cheesy dialogue and beautiful women to remind you that this isn't just director Christopher Nolan's doctoral thesis, but a bustling summer blockbuster.

Nolan’s final film of the "Dark Knight" trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a limping hermit, locking himself up in his mansion after taking the fall for Harvey Dent. Rumors quickly spread that the once billionaire playboy has devolved into a Howard Hughes-esque eccentric.

Wayne, of course, comes out of hiding upon the always-wise counsel of the venerable Alfred (Michael Caine), who sadly is absent from much of the film. Bruce then goes to play with high-tech toys provided by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and soon meets a new ensemble of characters including Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), all who turn in more convincing, more fascinating performances than Bale and play roles that are just as vital.

Exiting into a city terrorized by gigantic villain Bane (Tom Hardy) and extreme civil unrest kicked off by a Bastille-style prison storming, Batman is initially no match for his new nemesis. Both raspy-voiced Batman and Bane, who speaks through a medicine-dispensing mask, are tough to understand, but there are a few more similarities between the two. Nolan constantly asks the viewer to ponder whether one is ever truly good or truly evil -- is character ambiguous and shifted only by environment? Does individuality or an ability to work with others show heroism? Is seduction and stereotypical femininity a greater threat than brute, masculine violence? Should Bruce Wayne go heli-skiing?

These are the kinds of moralistic walks Nolan takes viewers on, waxing more Dostoevsky than the year's other huge superhero films, "The Avengers" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" For "Avengers” and "Spider-Man," laughs, tongue-in-cheek actors and action were the basis of what made the films enjoyable. For Nolan, character exploration and massively scaled scenes of terrorism and class warfare -- all of which seem far too real -- create visual and visceral excitement.

Visually, the film is tough to beat. Nolan boasted to Empire Magazine (via The Playlist) earlier this year that “Rises” is "the biggest (movie) anyone's done since the silent era, in technical terms.”

With thousands of extras and massive set pieces, he may very well be right. Nolan also cited Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” in the interview, and the sweeping scenes in which the poor violently steal from the rich, literally forcing them out of their homes, channels Dickens but also seems to foresee a dystopian future in which Occupy Wall Street acquires greater organization, more hard-liners and serious firepower. “Rises” is the French Revolution in New York -- with heavy-breathing heroes and antiheroes, not to mention an exploding football field sure to get the adrenaline pumping.

At times, it feels like appeasing the fanboy demographic is the only reason Nolan included Miranda Tate and leather-clad Catwoman. Fortunately, their raison d’être is redeemed by a series of plot twists and an exploration of the good versus evil battle that rages inside all of us.

Typical superhero stuff, perhaps. Yet even if the overarching ideas are typical, they’re explored and achieved so effectively that the film is at once deeply disturbing and extremely enjoyable. There's no performance here quite like Heath Ledger's Joker, but this is also sort of the point. Evil can manifest itself through the masses, not just through a single, psychotic individual. What is evil, Nolan asks? What is Batman even fighting for?

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