Edge of Darkness

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‘Edge of Darkness’ begins and ends with two absurd and unintentionally hilarious shots. The rest isn’t much better. What has been touted as Mel Gibson’s comeback film is a mess, a film that tries to juggle at least 4 different balls at once, dropping them all. It tries to be a melancholy drama about grief and morality, and exposé on nuclear power, a throwback to the 70’s paranoia/conspiracy thrillers, and a what-kind-of-idiot-is-still-messing-with-Mel-Gibson’s-family? film. Trouble is, a couple of those might work together, but the main two -Mel Gibson wrestles with grief and Mel Gibson kicks ass- nullify each other. It’s hard to cheer anything in this drab, gray, Boston setting, and it’s impossible to take anything seriously when Mel asks someone to remove his glasses, to make for a smoother punch.

 The plot is easily summarized: Somebody messes with Mel Gibson. I wonder what he’ll do? A bit more specifically, his daughter’s murder uncovers a big nefarious plot. It involves evil CEOs, government agents, environmental terrorists, spineless corrupt senators, bribed cops and a boyfriend, just about all of whom will get their asses kicked by Gibson’s ironically named Thomas Craven.
 
 The film was directed by Martin Campbell, who has shown a knack for entertaining action thrillers in ‘The Mask of Zorro’ and the two James Bond films he directed, ‘Golden Eye’ and ‘Casino Royale’. But that is not the main reason this film was surprising in its dullness. Campbell actually directed this material before, in a popular six-part 1985 BBC miniseries of the same name (unseen by me). Something must have gone terribly wrong in the process of the adaptation, as not only is the film jarring tonally, but it has painfully bad dialogue. Gibson can sell the lines (as Pauline Kael said, ‘No one speaks American better’), but this film doesn’t allow you to revel in the visceral amorality of a revenge tale. It tries to be somber and tasteful in its shooting style and tone, as well as tasteless in its dialogue and violence. It doesn’t work at all, trying to be Dennis Lehane one moment and Donald Westlake the next. I was aghast that a film pretending to be at least conscious of morality expected its audience to embrace a bloody shootout that tries to emulate the ridiculous operatic finales of early Brian DePalma (when in fact, it is closer to the grotesque and embarrassing ‘the Black Dahlia’).

 This is Mel Gibson’s comeback to acting, his first major film role since 2002’s ‘Signs’. He’s been through one or two things since then. But even so, I didn’t find it hard to separate the man from the film. I’ve always liked Gibson as an actor, and as a director. It is not a simple matter, liking the work of a man so personally problematic. It is probably a moot concept, as unless something radical happens, I will probably go on liking the film and being troubled by the man. I can’t say the matter occurred to me while watching this film, as aside from being older and more harried, this is a totally familiar and solid Mel Gibson performance. His natural charisma remains unchanged, though I felt less zest and interest than in previous roles. You still shouldn’t mess with his family. Like other Gibson revenge films -‘Ransom’ and ‘The Patriot’- this film will quickly fade from memory (though ‘Payback’ is unfairly overlooked, an edgy 90’s take on Westlake’s ‘Point Blank’, the source for John Boorman’s great film of the same name). The violence is absurd, abrupt, and generally laughable, with only a couple of exceptions. How absurd? The film actually brings to life an episode Gibson used to parody himself in a decade old ‘Simpsons’ episode. Although the President doesn’t get impaled this time around, he easily could have.

 There are plenty of examples of this movie’s failure, but it’s too bland and forgettable to get worked up about. The only people coming off of this film looking particularly good are Danny Huston and Ray Winstone. Huston plays the main villain as a totally insane and not particularly bright Bond-like villain (the Bond connection is made in a couple of the film’s particularly bad moments). It doesn’t fit in the film, but at least its something that stands out. Winstone plays the mysterious Jedburgh, a fixer sent by Huston to clean things up. He is terrific, making his under-written character fascinating and touching by sheer talent and charisma. His scenes are possibly the only ones that are interesting for the right reasons, and somewhat fit the melancholy tone the film was trying to achieve. Gibson, too, comes alive in their scenes together.

 It’s a less than auspicious start to film in 2010, but its to be expected from a February release (The good films released at the beginning of the year are extremely few and far between).

SHLOMO PORATH