Saturday, July 10, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic, Jay O. Sanders
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Edge of Darkness
, the embattled Mel Gibson's first starring vehicle in over six years, isn't the "revenge thriller" you may have assumed from its ads and trailers. This is both good and bad. Good in the sense that the story isn't just an excuse for senseless violence and is for the most part intelligently crafted. Bad in that the whole thing is dragged down in scenes of senseless expository dialogue that disappointingly take us exactly where we think it will. While better than expected, it's fatal flaw is in giving us the same old conspiracy story we've seen hundreds of times before when there were so many better options available.

This is one of those workmanlike movies you happen to catch on cable late at night and enjoy watching while it's on, then it ends and you realize you've essentially seen nothing and wasted your time. But for a movie that's too talky to be considered a thriller of any kind, it sure does have some impressive death scenes, including one shocker that caused me to literally jump in my seat. And it's difficult to go too hard on a movie that features Gibson screaming "Fasten your f*ckin' seatbelt!" at a crooked lawyer and informing us "Everything's illegal in Massachusetts." No matter how you may feel about Gibson as a person or celebrity, when the cameras start rolling, he unquestionably delivers. As a showcase for him the film's a success, but he would have benefited more if the story wasn't so ordinary.

The most frustrating aspect is how promising it starts. Boston police detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) picks up his visiting daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic) at the airport and upon returning home she's gunned down at his front doorstep with authorities logically suspecting he was the intended target. Soon it becomes clear that Emma was caught in the middle of one of those far-reaching corporate cover-ups by the security firm where she worked. Out of spite, I'm almost tempted to reveal exactly what that cover-up is since the script tips its hand way, way too early, but that's not even worth it since it would just be greeted with a big "THAT'S IT?" It's so run-of-the mill and predictable nearly anything would have been more satisfying. The worst part of it is the opening death scene is so well-handled and sets up a scenario that could have gone in a million different intriguing directions, yet writer William Monahan chose the safest route.

On the bright side, when the film unwisely commits to taking that road it does so intelligently and doesn't repeat the mistake of the similarly themed Death Sentence a few years. Unlike Kevin Bacon's character in that torture porn fiasco, Craven doesn't just take to the streets and start murdering two minutes after his daughter's killed, as trailers have hinted. He grieves while throwing himself full force into the case as someone in his situation more likely would. It's just too bad we know the details and outcome of this investigation before it even starts and it still does nothing to get us to care about what's happened to his daughter. Gibson, now entering his mid-fifties, is still believable as a bad-ass out for revenge and puts on a credible Boston accent, but he's undermined by too many scenes spent sulking around and mumbling at the bad guys.

The film would have been far better off crafting a huge mystery around Emma and what happened, not pulling the trigger on the reveal until the final act. Besides building suspense, this also would have helped in getting us to care about her. Instead we're given loads of information I felt like I knew already sandwiched in-between a couple of crazy Final Destination-style death scenes. They're entertaining, but given the more serious nature of the plot you'd be right in questioning whether that's appropriate for the type of cerebral, 70's style thriller this is trying to be. It can't have it both ways since the plot isn't compelling enough to drive the dialogue-heavy scenes and the action clashes with the tone. 2004's government conspiracy thriller Spartan is the rare film to pull that tricky mix off but Martin Campbell is no David Mamet and this script isn't nearly as layered.

There are some good performances that elevate the material slightly, namely from Danny Huston as the evil CEO of Northmoor, Jack Bennett. How do we know he's evil? He's played by Danny Huston. At least they picked the right actor. Professional heavy Ray Winstone plays a mysterious informant named Jedburgh, a role that originally went to Robert DeNiro before he walked off the set due to "creative differences" (a hilarious fact considering he's cashed checks for Meet The Fockers and Righteous Kill). It's Winstone's gain as he crafts an intriguing character out of basically nothing and gives us hope there could be more to the film than what lies on the surface. But there isn't and some of his talky scenes with Gibson are unbearable in length.

I did respect that after having sat through a story this pedestrian they at least bothered to give us a exciting ending that made sense. And that opening scene really is something else. As unpopular as this sounds, Gibson deserved better than this as an actor as his performance goes beyond what the script dictates he can bring. He has to do some heavy-lifting emotionally for a story that doesn't amount to much, though it's worth appreciating what the film was going for. Based on an acclaimed six-part 1985 British mini-series of the same name, it does feel like a project of that length was jammed into two hours worth of time, possibly with the more interesting aspects left out. Supposedly, the original had more of a sci-fi/mystical slant, which would have actually been welcome here. Anything other than the standard government conspiracy would have been welcome. A near-miss, Edge of Darkness is an interesting exception to Roger Ebert's famous rule, not working because of what it's about rather than how.

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