'The Dark Knight Rises' takes your inner child on savage, satisfying ride

Inside most every adult American male - closer to the surface in some than in others - lives the 8-year-old who spent hours dreaming up seemingly impossible adventures for Batman.

"The Dark Knight Rises" grabs that 8-year-old by the hair, punches him squarely in the face, then laughs heartily as he wets himself.

Cold, bleak and brutal, it's easily the moviegoing spectacle of the year.

The final chapter of writer-director Christopher Nolan's trilogy kicks off exactly eight years after the end of "The Dark Knight" on Harvey Dent Day, a Gotham City-wide remembrance of the late district attorney. In his memory, the harsh Dent Act has rid the city of virtually all crime, with a thousand violent criminals locked up Guantanamo Bay-style.

Batman (Christian Bale) is in self-imposed exile after having shouldered the blame for Dent's tragic demise. The world hasn't seen much of Bruce Wayne, either - the billionaire, unable to shake off the events of the previous film, has become a recluse. His mental scars run nearly as deep as the physical ones cataloged during a brief hospital visit.

But both are dragged out of the rebuilt Wayne Manor by the arrivals of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and masked terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy).

It's best not to talk too much about the plot, except to say that it comes full circle to the story of "Batman Begins." And, much like "The Dark Knight," the bulk of the tale would be just as gripping outside the superhero realm. Most of the script could have been lifted from, say, the next Jack Ryan adventure.

It's also a surprisingly political film - though not in the way Rush Limbaugh and others have sought a link between the villainous Bane and Bain Capital. There's enough here to keep cable news shouters on each side feeling both vindicated and vilified for weeks on end.

Unlike the previous two installments, though, "The Dark Knight Rises" takes a while to coalesce.

Much of the early focus is on Bane, a hulking, muscled mass who sounds like the spurned love child of Sean Connery and Darth Vader. He'd challenge the bleach-gargling rasp of Batman right down to the lavish, star-studded finale of "Indecipherable Idol."

As the convoluted plot is laid out during the movie's long, slow build, there's an overriding fear that things are going horribly, indescribably awry, that Nolan's lost it and that this will inevitably end up ruining the entire franchise.

But when Bane finally reveals his master plan - addressing a stunned crowd at a football stadium while wearing his S&M mask and sweet, sweet pimp coat - against all reason, the situation feels instantly, alarmingly real.

Unlike the giant, flying sea turtles of "The Avengers," the threat here - evoking memories of miniseries such as "Amerika" and "The Stand" - truly seems like the end of days.

Maybe it's that the pounding, thunderous drums of Hans Zimmer's overpowering score have beaten you into submission, but it's hard not to get swept up in the horror of it all.

The franchise's major players all return and hit all the right notes. Bale gives Bruce Wayne the necessary haunted quality. Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon retains his quiet dignity. Morgan Freeman adds his usual sly spark as inventor Lucius Fox. And Michael Caine's Alfred - his eyes watering and voice quivering more than ever with worry for Master Bruce - continues to class up the joint.

The newcomers, while solid additions, don't fare quite as well, largely because of the unfair expectations created by Heath Ledger and his iconic Joker.

As Bane, Hardy isn't given much to play besides pure evil, but he disappears completely in the role.

Hathaway brings the sexy - she looks so much better driving the Bat Pod than its owner does, it's like Fox sculpted the cycle for her - as well as a depth to the Catwoman role that was missing in previous incarnations.

And as Gotham police officer John Blake, Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his Hollywood ascent, mustering an interesting blend of earnestness and intensity. A lesser director would build future installments or spinoffs around him.

But this is very clearly the end of Nolan's Batman saga. It has to be. Assuming he could think of a way to top it, he'd be locked away as a threat to himself and others.

To butcher the underlying theme of its predecessor, "The Dark Knight Rises" is both the conclusion the franchise needs and the conclusion it deserves.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.