Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Despite an engagingly grief-stricken leading performance from Mel Gibson and a couple of muscular action scenes as staged by Casino Royale director Martin Campbell, Edge of Darkness ultimately reveals itself as the most paint-by-numbers thriller imaginable. I've never seen the 1985 BBC television series of the same name that it's adapted from (also directed by Martin Campbell, before he hit it big with Bond and Zorro), but I understand it was highly acclaimed as a riveting, fresh work and selected by the British Film Institute as the fifteenth greatest British television series of all time. And I don't doubt that was true back in '85, but a lot of these conspiracy thriller tropes have become so deeply ingrained in our pop cultural subconscious that as of 2010 they no longer have the slightest kick.

(I'll warn in advance that, while leaving out specific details and who lives and who dies, I'm gonna reveal the rough outline of how Edge of Darkness plays out because it's tough to discuss my big gripes without doing so.) The film opens engagingly enough with a Boston cop played by Mel Gibson picking his visiting daughter up at the train station and her getting bloodily gunned down by an assassin within minutes. A grieving Gibson follows a lead by searching for the registered owner of a gun his daughter had in her nightstand and soon finds himself at her workplace, a shadowy, secretive weapons manufacturing firm called Northmoor, housed in a creepy black tower with a slimy, mustache-twirling CEO played by Danny Huston.

That might sound well and good, but here's the problem: the plot is basically over at this point, and we're only like a third of the way through the movie's runtime. If you've ever seen a conspiracy thriller before in your life, in any medium of fiction, it's painfully, glaringly obvious from the first second we set eyes on Northmoor that this is our villainous organization and Danny Huston is our big bad. Maybe this would be okay if the movie turned into an action flick after this point, but it continues on for another hour as a mystery, behaving as if there's any more plot we don't know, then shocks us by revealing that Northmoor was manufacturing nuclear weapons and Mel Gibson's daughter was killed because she found out and planned to expose them. I mean, come on now. A bright seven-year-old could've guessed that "twist."

With the plot and pacing of Edge of Darkness being a bust you have to turn to acting and directing to find the movie's admirable qualities. Mel Gibson may be a real-life racist and right-wing fundamentalist whack job, but damn if he doesn't still have an engaging screen presence even after a near decade-long gap between this and his last role in 2002's Signs. Compare him to newer actors like Sam Worthington and Channing Tatum and the vast gulf in talent is pretty damn clear. While no other performance is particularly memorable Gibson makes his character's grief and drive for justice and revenge about as compelling as you could ask for through the super-thick Boston accent he puts on.

Martin Campbell's direction is typically classy and understated, free from flashy camera or editing tricks and with action scenes that take the form of extremely short bursts of intense violence (outside of one Bourne-flavored fight sequence in an apartment). It's a far cry from what Campbell did in his Bond and Zorro movies, but he gives the violence a weight and intensity that's admirable. One particular scene where Mel Gibson kills an antagonistic car with a gun made me laugh out loud with approval (don't worry, my theater was pretty much completely empty, I wasn't being an asshole) and think "damn, I wish that had been in a Bond movie!"

However, Campbell and screenwriter William Monahan undermine the weight of the movie's action and general realism of its tone by inserting quite a few scenes where Mel Gibson hallucinates about his dead daughter and has conversations with her. Very jarring, very unwelcome, and very unnecessary — Mel Gibson's sad that his daughter died. We get that. It's very, very simple, and Gibson's performance more than drives the point home. We didn't need Star Wars-style post-death ghost conversations to jackhammer it in.

So overall I can't bring myself to recommend this movie unless you've never seen a conspiracy thriller before in your damn life. There's just nothing remotely creative or substantial here, nothing that adds anything to the world of cinema, nothing that needed to be said. You wanna see a conspiracy thriller? Great, watch The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the 2004 remake). You wanna see an action flick about a father out for justice for his daughter? Great, watch Taken — it's got Liam Neeson, even better than Mel Gibson! But as for Edge of Darkness, I quote Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher: "You are neither cold nor hot. So because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth."

You nailed it, Bill.

2 Stars out of 5

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