Friday, January 29, 2010

Movie Review: "Edge of Darkness"

Originally published in the 1/31/09 edition of The Source.

If not for the presence of Blackberries and laptops, "Edge of Darkness" could be mistaken for a replay of Mel Gibson's greatest hits.

Bereaved family man out for revenge ala "Mad Max" and "Ransom?" Check. Cop pushed to the brink of despair and madness, just like "Lethal Weapon?" Check. Quiet loner dishing out violent, bloody justice similar to "Payback?" Check. Detective Tom Craven couldn't be a more tailor-made Gibson character if he was wearing blue face paint and a kilt.

Of course, there's a reason Gibson winds up typecast in these roles: Few actors are able to combine integrity, righteous anger and a touch of madness as well as he does. He's the rare actor equally at home in a screwball comedy or a hard-edged noir, unpredictable because his characters - slightly off-kilter with a penchant for gruesome violence when necessary - are a bit more intense than those played by, say, Tom Hanks.

So Gibson is right at home in this police thriller, helmed by "Casino Royale's" Martin Campbell, playing a cop whose life unravels after his daughter is brutally murdered on his doorstep. While it is initially assumed that the murderer was originally after Craven, his own off-the-books investigation reveals, as such investigations always do in these movies, that there is "More To The Story."

What follows is the typical corporate conspiracy thriller made so popular in the 1990s, where the plot follows like this: Someone close to the cop is murdered in what looks like a standard incident. The cop decides to lay aside his badge and pursue the investigation on his own, and learns that their loved one has been the pawn or whistleblower in some vast corporate scheme that usually involves pharmaceuticals or the federal government. These movies are best known for their villain, who is usually dressed in a suit and seated in a corner office. The films also reliably offer a scene where the hero grimly intones "I'm not going to arrest anyone ... I'm going to kill them.""

Edge of Darkness" makes no effort to hide the fact that it's a pure formulaic exercise; it's actually a remake of a British miniseries directed by Campbell. We know from the start that the murder was likely not just a random crime and when Craven finds his daughter's work badge while going through her things, we know that sooner or later there's going to be a trip to her office, which is likely where we'll meet the piece's villain.

The question is not whether "Edge of Darkness" is formulaic, but whether or not it works. And despite the fact that I felt like I'd seen this movie a dozen times before starring Ashley Judd or Harrison Ford, "Edge of Darkness" does work more often than not, thanks largely in part to Gibson's tough-as-nails performance. The actor's always been able to center his heroes with a sense of humor and warmth, and the early scenes show an easy rapport between Craven and his daughter. The film's first act, in which Craven mourns his loss and has imaginary conversations with his daughter's ghost, is a powerful addition to the formula that manages to convey a sense of loss and a longing for revenge.

Gibson, who has been absent from the screen since 2003 to direct "The Passion of the Christ" and "Apocalypto," ably creates a wounded, soulful hero. Unlike his peers, who often play characters half their age, Gibson is playing an older man, a grizzled police veteran. We know he's seen violence and, just by the cold look in his eyes and the gravel in his voice, we know he's capable of dishing it out as well. Few characters can balance integrity with a touch of madness as well as Gibson, and he's in top form here.

He's nearly upstaged by Ray Winstone, who plays a shady "consultant" brought in by the government to observe the situation and decide whether to silence Craven. With a touch of both comedy and sadness, Winstone creates a great counterpoint to the black-and-white Craven: He's a hit man who's seen too much, lived too little and is weary with the world he lives in, amazed to see a forthright man like Craven amidst the sleazy politicians he works for. Winstone and Gibson have only a few scenes together, but both are the film's high points, elevating it above formula to a place that hints at something deeper that the film may have lost at the editing stage.

Any fault with the film comes from Campbell, whose own track record is full of hits like "Casino Royale" and misses like "Vertical Limit." As stated earlier, Campbell is remaking his own 1980s miniseries and one gets the sense that he's grown a bit tired of the story. Plot points in certain areas are rushed and confusing, and I'm not sure that all the pieces connect as cleanly as Campbell would like them to. It's easy to see that a bit longer of a running time and some more careful scripting would have given the plot the necessary time to unfold and breathe, as certain plot threads feel rushed and others - like the scenes between Winstone and Gibson - seem to just scratch the surface of saying something deeper.

But Campbell is also adept at filming a great action sequence and he delivers a few memorable set pieces here, including one genuinely startling character dispatch. When it comes time to put away the plot and pull out the big guns (literally), Campbell stages the violent climax with the right mixture of adrenaline without making it exploitive. And his handling of Craven's grief in the earlier scenes is a refreshingly touching change of pace from the way such inciting incidents are usually glossed over in these films.

But the audience will likely come for Gibson, whose return in front of the camera is solid while refreshingly familiar. It's nice to know the actor in him can still play the same roles so well after a long break. So long as he stays away from "Lethal Weapon 5," it's a pleasure watching him take on the old tics again.

1 comment:

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.