By Dan Cohen, Santa Monica Reporter
Five minutes into the new Mel Gibson vehicle, “Edge of Darkness,” you understand why the world is in thrall to American filmmaking. The movies’ sheer craft lulls you into willing submission. That its problems pile up like cars on an icy highway is almost aside from the point. Meticulous production and technical credits go a ways to glossing over the large narrative problems the script struggles to contain. Still, we expected better.
Mel Gibson’s last winning role was in “Signs,” almost eight years ago. M. Night Shyamalans’ superior rethinking of sci fi movies from the 50s provided him with a part nicely divided into two complementary halves. On one hand he was a preacher struggling with a loss of faith, and on the other a father called upon to protect his family during an alien invasion. Gibson was convincing at both.
I don’t want to digress too much, but I think “Signs” is an achievement worthy of Hitchcock. Its unlikely mixture of humor, suspense and feeling, confirms the promise of Shyamalan’s “Sixth Sense.” Also his shrewd instincts for casting; Gibson was an unusual choice that paid off. He’s spirited in the early scenes, playing around with his kid and brother, then reflective in the more sober moments, as he uses the memory of his wife’s death to summon the necessary strength to overcome fear.
After “Signs” Gibson produced and played a supporting part in a misconceived theatrical version of Dennis Potter’s British mini series, “The Singing Detective.” It was an experiment that didn’t work. Since then we haven’t heard from him, other than the high comic incidents reported in the press. This is unlike “Mad” Mel, who was on a creative tear for over 25 years.
One of the things that first set Gibson apart from his peers was the manic energy he seemed to summon out of nowhere. But he didn’t show that mercurial temperament in the beginning. After “Mad Max,” and “Road Warrior,” in which he took a back seat to the action, he won traditional leads in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” and “The Bounty,” directed by fellow Aussies Peter Weir and Roger Donaldson.
Both films called upon the actor to fit a director’s vision. Gibson was cast as a young and thoughtful everyman who kept his cool under pressure. Then came “Lethal Weapon,” a 180 degree turnabout where he all but ignited from within. Playing a cop with a penchant for acts of suicidal bravery, Gibson took an unlikely gimmick and ran with it. Richard Donner was at the helm, and Danny Glover was indispensable as the partner, but there was no show without Gibson.
“Lethal Weapon” unleashed the “mad” in Mel, but once he had the leverage, shrewd instincts kept him away from becoming stereotyped as an action hero.
What he seemed eager to prove, judging by the roles he took, as “Hamlet,” “The Man Without a Face,” and “Maverick,” was that he could, and would, remake himself from top to bottom with each new movie. The results were mixed, with the exception of Hamlet. Some said Gibson, in his mid 30s, was too old for the part, but he did justice to the text. Beyond that, the play was skillfully abbreviated by director Franco Zeferelli, who had successfully applied the same shortcuts to “Romeo and Juliet”
Next he turned to producing and directing. He defied all odds with “The Passion of the Christ,” an audacious, blood soaked phenomenon that divided critics but recruited a world wide audience. When he announced his intention to direct the film in a dead language, with his own money, Hollywood let out a huge howl. The movie set box office records.
Next came “Apocalypto,” a quirky epic that recycled the plot of “The Naked Prey,” a cult film from 1965, which was also directed by an ambitious actor, Cornell Wilde. Both films had unmistakable style and conviction. “Apocalypto,” like “Passion” plays without a word of English. Although it didn’t reach the stratosphere it turned a profit.
Add to that mix the award winning “Braveheart,” a couple of effective action films, “Payback” and “Ransom,” and a passably good romantic comedy, “What Women Want,” and you see why Gibson won so much respect in the industry. Now, a little mellower, and deep into his fifties, he returns to the angry cop genre with “Edge of Darkness.”
No sooner does Emma Craven arrive home after a long time away, than she’s brutally slain in what appears to be an attempt to kill her father, a Boston detective. The detective, Thomas Craven, soon comes to suspect that the hit was actually meant for his daughter, who was working at a nuclear test facility. Forcing his nose to the ground in typical investigative mode, Craven channels his rage and sorrow into an obsessive search that undermines a complicated attempt to cover up wrongdoing at the highest level of government.
The early scenes, which follow Cravens’ initial attempts to get a handle on Emmas’ secret life, are expert. Pacing and texture are pitch perfect. After one or two seemingly unrelated killings, there’s a sense that anything can happen, and a resulting overhang of menace. Middle aged and pitted against a multi million dollar corporation, the cop appears woefully handicapped by the only tools at his command, police procedure. The tension is palpable.
Then the thing gets shaky. The story, out of necessity, changes point of view, several times. It has to, in order to show us what the detective is up against. But we lose the sense of lurking danger as more and more of the plot and its players, standard corporate bad guys, are revealed. Had the shifts been longer, giving us more time with the characters, both good and bad, the effect would have been to deepen the entire situation. As it is the second half seems rushed, and at times, rather absurd.
The smart plot degenerates as you start to ask yourself why these guys, with virtually unlimited resources, can’t just pick off the piss ant detective.
“Edge of Darkness” is a two hour adaptation of a six hour mini series. Martin Campbell, the director, revisits the same material he made for the BBC 25 years ago. Campbell recently brought a fresh eye to the James Bond reboot, “Casino Royale.” But in trying to compress his multi part series into feature length the director has taken on an almost impossible task. What’s missing here, above all, is emotional weight.
One example in particular will point to the larger problem. Midway through, an unseen assailant tries to plow Craven down with a speeding car. Craven gets right in its path and unloads his service revolver. The first shots penetrate the windshield. We then see blood splattering from inside the vehicle. And a moment later, the inevitable crash. But we never see the driver, and even if we had, we wouldn’t have been able to make a connection. Later on his identity is revealed, but for the life of me I can’t remember who it was. A lot of the film plays that way. Of course we’ve seen all this before; it’s a predictable convention. But in this case, when something is supposed to be at stake, the scene fails to contribute anything but a bit of violence.
There’s no denying the craft on display. The robust production design, inviting at first, turns nasty with a commanding jolt. Several action scenes have the force of a jack hammer. But tension is dissipated by the nagging feeling that the pieces have been jerry rigged with the single aim of getting to the end.
Ray Winstone, a Brit playing a high priced stoolie, is strong in a part that needed more breathing room. The same is true of Danny Huston, another stellar performer given short shrift by a thin role.
But Gibson, if anything, is more effective, as an actor. The lines in his face, which he wears like a badge of honor, have only enhanced his appeal. He does more with less, especially in the quieter moments, when his slightest gestures elegantly smartly express bottled up rage. He almost holds the whole movie together.