"Edge of Darkness"

Imagine for a moment that you are one of today’s teenagers, say eighteen years old. Imagine that you’re a big film fan who hits the theater every weekend and tries to stay up to date with the current releases. Imagine, however, that you’re not big on “old” movies, like, for example, anything made prior to 2004 when you first starting taking notice of movies that didn’t have talking squirrels. Now imagine sitting in on “Edge of Darkness” last Friday and wondering who in the world this Mel Gibson character is and where exactly he’s been for your entire film-going lifetime.

Maybe that sounds a bit ridiculous to anyone who isn’t eighteen, but consider that Gibson’s last star turn was in 2002’s criminally underrated “Signs.” A planned hiatus to work on directing combined with the infamous drunken rants that made the rounds a few years ago have kept Gibson out of the movie spotlight for eight years. Eight years. For all intents and purposes that’s an entire movie going generation that hasn’t had any big screen contact with a man who used to be a bankable, $20 million-a-film superstar. And that’s a shame, no matter the fact that Mel made the bed that he’s found himself in.

“Edge of Darkness” is based on a British mini-series of the same name. In a very rare Hollywood twist it is directed by Martin Campbell, who actually oversaw the original in 1985. Boston cop Thomas Craven (Gibson) welcomes his beloved daughter, Emma, home only to have her gunned down on his doorstep a few hours later. What follows for the rest of the film involves Craven trying to figure out who killed his daughter, digging deeper and deeper into the sordid political mess she found herself in prior to her death. Craven’s hunt takes him into contact with corporate villains, crooked lawyers, environmental activists, dirty senators, and a British bagman named Jedburgh, played exquisitely by Ray Winstone.

Craven is a hard cop, a guy who you wouldn’t be surprised to learn had roughed up a criminal or two. But his daughter’s death sets him free from any bureaucratic chains that might have inhibited him before. He is out for the truth of Emma’s death, revenge for that death, and to expose the political cover-up he’s investigating, but he’ll settle for the first two if that’s all he has time for. What sets Craven apart from many other tough-movie-cops is his ability to switch tactics to get what he wants. He threatens one man, outsmarts the next, and simply outtalks the one after that. He fights when he has to but he waits for the game to come to him. His moves are calculated. Again, however, when it comes time to stop talking and start shooting, he’s up to the task.

While the lead character is a fine example of an action movie hero, the whole of “Edge of Darkness” is a mixed bag. Campbell’s wildly inconsistent directing career (the man is responsible for both the saving of James Bond with “Casino Royale” and the absurdity that is “Vertical Limit”) shows up here as it seems he’s not sure whether “Edge” should be a political thriller or a “Taken” knock off. In truth it often feels like a foreign director is trying to pack his movie with the type of action he thinks the average American moviegoer wants to see. So what you get is an odd combination of outstanding, methodical dialogue built around slightly over the top action sequences. The result left me a little off balance, not completely sure what the film was actually going for. I came away feeling that the film had some failed award aspirations and compensated by adding some cliché action movie fodder. I am left to wonder if this wouldn’t have been better if Campbell and crew had just made this a darker, grittier version of “Taken.”

Acting wise, this is the Gibson Show through and through, with strong support from Winstone. Everyone else, even veteran character actors like Jay O. Sanders, seem out of their depth with Gibson. The normally powerful Danny Huston in particular seemed off his game. His corporate villain Jack Bennett is, for the most part, simply off putting and not in the way that you might expect a good villain to be. Comments and actions that are meant to come across as cold instead feel just plan weird. Winstone, on the other hand, is magnificent, the perfect compliment to Gibson. Jedburgh is a philosophical bad guy, a man who goes out of his way to respect those he is sent to “deter.” He gives you the feeling that he would be a “good guy” if only the good guys got paid a little better, while his cockney accent makes him simultaneously more menacing and appealing. The scenes he and Gibson share and the conversations therein are superb, especially their first encounter which brings forth memories of the diner conversation between Pacino and DeNiro in “Heat.”

Overall “Edge of Darkness” is a slightly bumpy ride that rests almost entirely on its leading man. Gibson delivers better than you might expect for someone who’s been out of the game for so long. He looks quite a bit older and more worn since last we saw him. Yet he still displays the same characteristics and mannerisms that made William Wallace, Martin Riggs, and the rest jump off the screen the way his characters have over the last 30 years. This is, for me at least, a triumphant return for a great actor, even if the movie isn’t up to par with the performance of its star. Will this resurrect his career and work to earn him back his place with the Hollywood elite? Who knows, but if nothing else, at least a generation of eighteen years can finally have the opportunity to get to know who the heck this Mel Gibson guy really is.

Grade: B.

If you don’t like “Signs” you’re not watching it right,