January 29th, 2009–
The best thing that can be said for Martin Campbell’s new thriller of Edge of Darkness is that it’s a gritty and welcome return for the fallen Mel Gibson who stars as Detective John Craven. That’s not a back-handed compliment either. Even before events in his private life shattered his rep, Gibson hadn’t exactly been lighting up the cinema with his onscreen presence. His ability was never in question but his choice of films often felt like paychecks to help finance his own personal directorial visions. He’s a gifted and canny director, but I haven’t really bought one of his performances since 1999’s Payback.
Now, in a variation on that role—add in a heaping helping of Liam Neeson’s grim, determined father from Taken—Gibson comes back to the acting fold with a character that walks the line between justice and vengeance so erratically one feels compelled to check the credits and make sure his name isn’t Max Rockatansky.
First off, let’s get something out of the way for those pop addicts who remember the sterling 1985 miniseries Edge of Darkness that starred Bob Peck and was also directed by Campbell. That thrilling, and overwhelmingly odd take on the nuclear concerns of a turbulent decade was a fascinating piece of political intrigue and science fiction. But this film is different enough that it can also stand on its own. The original ended on a note so bizarre that I never even considered this film version would attempt anything similar.
As it turns out, I’m right, and that’s really a good thing. 2010’s Edge of Darkness is a revenge film dressed in an environmental thriller’s clothing, and it hits all the right notes that a pic like this aims for. It gives us a great evil corporation in Northmoor (even the name sounds cool) complete with Danny Huston as its head, dialing up John’s Chinatown performance for his inspiration.
There are exciting and brutal chase scenes, an even-handed approach to Craven’s relationship with his daughter Emma, and Ray Winstone as the kind of guy who gets called in to clean-up when every one else has failed miserably. You recognize the pieces, and Martin Campbell is a pro at making these things fit together so that when all of the dog-eared ends have been shoved in the proper place we look at it whole and say “Gee, that’s rather good!” For an example see his James Bond reboot, Casino Royale.
Movies like this seem easier to navigate than they really are. This Edge is far less labyrinthine than its source material but there’s still a mystery that needs telling, and once you have removed the more arcane elements the remainder isn’t all that mysterious. Scripter William Monahan doesn’t try to stump us with Northmoor’s real intentions—they are brought to light sometime in the second reel—but instead focuses on the rise and fall of the characters, both noble and corrupt, and watches them through a lens similar to the one he used for 2006’s The Departed.
For my money, this Martin does a more admirable job with Monahan’s writing here than the other Martin did with that aforementioned adaptation. The atmosphere and cinematography are both first-rate and the style of construction is reminiscent of a BBC production, with lots of stationary shots peering around doorframes or from high angles to set-up characters as if they are part of a still-life diorama. Huston looks down from his lofty perch in the Northmoor tower to observe Gibson’s ant-like form striding across the parking lot, ready for bear. In another scene where the architecture is as emotionally important as the acting, Jay O’ Saunders lodges himself uncomfortably at Gibson’s small dining room table to deliver plot-changing news.
There is also a natural progression to the picture’s moments of violence. They are not telegraphed, even once. Occasionally something willl happen that we see coming, but it happens with lack of fanfare or signal on the soundtrack. The action is clear and rugged. When people are damaged, the resulting trauma looks real and appropriate. Craven participates in some hand-to-hand combat that is brutal and quick but looks like it really was learned by a cop on the streets of Boston. Winstone’s character is clearly an agent of the script, but Campbell visually arranges him like an angel of death and he feels more plausible with each scene he’s in.
At the end of the day, where Edge of Darkness really gains its subtext is in the eventual redemption of its main star, Mel Gibson. He could have picked another light romantic comedy or historical drama for his comeback but he’s made the right choice here. Craven is a hard-edged man who is seemingly ready to come apart at the seams at any moment. When Emma, the only thing he truly loves, is violently taken from him, he sets out on a mission of revenge that never falters or transforms even when he finds it involves the populace at large and not just his daughter. There’s a hint of untapped darkness hiding there in his eyes, and Gibson gives a likable, sturdy performance that starts opening like a Venus Flytrap towards the midsection of the film.
There is a moment that you will know when you see it. This honest cop and father has been following his daughter’s leads and contacts and Edge has begun to wind down into a familiar and routine pace. We have started to connect again with that Gibson who made us laugh in Lethal Weapon and Maverick, and who played heroic characters like the one in Ransom. And then, there’s a moment where he finally sees the pieces come together and witnesses an attack on an innocent. He takes his gun out of the holster as if it’s a natural mechanism of his being, and strides across the bloody road firing with determination. The switch is flipped, and in that one moment Mad Max comes back and never leaves the picture.
Mel is great here, and I for one am finally glad to have something else than his personal life to consider. He’s always been a talented performer and it isn’t often that we can watch one of our action heroes return in latter years and fulfill the same promise they showed early on. Just ask Harrison Ford. For Mel, the years have only served to hone and enhance that fearsome quality he showed in early days. What is most surprising about his work in Edge is that his softer, gentle side is no less convincing. Go figure.