I would not particularly advise that one go see the final or even the second part without having watched the preceding ones. Nolan, along with his brother Jonathan and David S Goyer developed the final instalment to the trilogy so as to create a narrative arc spanning the entire three films, with crucial details and characters from the first two films surfacing in the final.
At the beginning of the film, Batman has deserted Gotham City, having taken the blame for crimes he did not commit at the end of The Dark Knight. Gotham is finally safe, having made good on the legacy left by the once heroic Harvey Dent (for whom Batman took the blame).
Shattered by the loss of his alter ego, and tragedy stricken by the death of his long-time love Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in the first film, replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal in the second), Bruce Wayne has been holed up for the past few years at Wayne Manor, a surly recluse debilitated both mentally and physically, and with only his faithful Alfred (Michael Caine) for company.
Wayne Enterprises is also on the brink of collapse and imminent take-over, and when Wayne Manor is robbed of Bruce's mother's pearls and his fingerprints by a cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, whose character is the Cat Woman culled from comics and previous Batman films), Wayne is finally spurred into motion, discouraged by Alfred who is afraid of his inherently destructive side, yet anticipated eagerly by certain law enforcement, Gary Oldman as Police Commissioner Gordon, and Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who have begun to hear disturbing rumours of an anarchic army being recruited and trained in the sewers of Gotham.
Enter Bane, a mysterious, terrifying figure, seemingly unbeatable, hyper-organised, and unfortunately, a step ahead of the good guys all the time. Interestingly, there are many villains in this film, as are there many heroes. Morality in action films is mostly clear-cut, but Nolan has always managed to walk the line in portraying the nebulous area between true evil vs people afflicted by some incurable trauma. Similarly, the good guys are not infallible either: Commissioner Gordon is wracked by guilt for concealing Harvey Dent's extraordinary transgressions and allowing his stalwart crime-fighter friend, the Batman, to take the blame.
Also questioned, though not resolved, over the course of the film is the question of state authority, and whether certain decisions made for the "greater good" are necessarily the right ones.
In a film like this, which runs at a whopping 2 hours and 44 minutes, it is easy to lose the plot, and even worse to not be able to connect with any one character. I would go so far as to say that Christian Bale's Batman is often just one of the characters instead of being the central one. However, it is the strength of the ensemble cast: the sly wit of Anne Hathaway's woman cat burglar, the stoic heroism of Gordon-Levitt's idealistic young police officer, the very great Michael Caine who is able to pull at the heart-strings with just a look, and Tom Hardy's fearless, fierce performance as Bane that carries the film.
The Dark Knight Rises is one of the biggest films of the summer for a reason, it maybe long, and occasionally convoluted, but the action is spectacular, as promised, and it carries the hallmark of one of today's most talented directors. Not as mindless as other action movies, Nolan's films have at least tried to address some of the complexities of what it means to turn to the dark side, and why.
The Dark Knight Rises is currently playing in theatres.