At last, the first new film of 2010 that does exactly what it sets out to do. Edge of Darkness may be Mel Gibson’s attempt to ride Taken's fatherly vengeance trend to a career comeback, but first and foremost it’s a solid serving of bloody conspiracies and entertaining thrills.
Edge of Darkness opens on a moonlit lake and right away you know this isn’t a nice romantic moonlit lake where you take your sweetie for stroll and a smooch. This is a Lake of Trouble. You know the kind—dark, still waters; deep secrets floating to the top; that sort of thing.
And sure enough, it is a Lake of Trouble—thank god! It’s only on screen for a minute at the start, but that good ol’ evil lake nicely sets the tone for the rest of Edge of Darkness, a taut combination of two great pulpy tastes: paternal vengeance and shadowy conspiracies.
Mel Gibson is Thomas Craven, a Boston police detective with all the trappings: decent family guy, rumpled trench coat, LP record player, old whiskey, deep lines in his granite face, bunched-up emotions, a nasally accent that doesn’t quite get there.
We see Craven welcome home his daughter–who’s living on her own, having started a big, new job–and we get just a few minutes of warm family banter and Craven the caring, easy-going father, before his daughter is brutally murdered in front of him by a drive-by shooting.
From there on, so long, genial, smiling Mel and hello, Dark Avenging Mel. We’ve seen Gibson in variations of this role before in films like Ransom and Payback, even Braveheart and Lethal Weapon: The guy who’s wound too tight, desperate and bereaved, angrily out to settle a score. But here, in the actor’s first starring role since 2002, we’re getting a new wrinkle, or rather several of them.
This Mad Mel is older, grayer, more drawn and haggard. He still barrels through the role shoulder first (the actor has never been much for subtle nuance), but rather than the fearless, what-the-hell heroes of his earlier career, Gibson’s Thomas Craven looks and moves like a guy playing out his last hand. It’s a weary sadness that works well for this relatively understated thriller.
Don’t worry, Edge of Darkness isn’t an introspective mope fest—it moves steadily along as Craven starts methodically tugging on questions about his daughter’s death and her life, including her job. Soon one of those shadowy conspiracies is unraveling, the kind where the scope keeps widening (business! government! national security!), sources keep brutally dying, and no one can be trusted.
Gibson still has his signature emotional move: a somewhat stammering, squinting confusion as he sorts things out, then switching over to a slow burning steely glare as he charges forward. That’s always been Mel's appeal as an action actor: the guy who isn’t quite sure what’s going on, so he eventually decides to just punch or shoot someone. And whatever you may think about Gibson the person, there’s no denying the guy is an old-school Movie Star, the kind of rock-solid presence who can anchor well-crafted genre pulp like this. (And it doesn’t hurt that Edge of Darkness allows Gibson to wallow in two of the actor’s favorite pastimes: physical and emotional self-flagellation and murky governmental conspiracy theories.)
Serbian-born actress Bojana Novakovic briefly plays Craven’s daughter, and she and the role are Edge of Darkness’s only major misstep: The actress isn’t strong enough to give us a deeper sense of who the daughter is or what her and her father mean to each other in the short time she has on-screen. So we don’t feel Craven’s pain as acutely as we’re meant to—throughout the rest of the film, we’re going more on the idea of the his horrible loss than the gut-punch emotion of it.
Luckily Edge of Darkness has bigger acting shoulders around to carry the weight. In addition to Gibson’s two-fisted driving force, there’s the always-unnerving Danny Huston who puts his oaken timbre to fine use as the head of the highly suspicious weapons manufacturing company Craven’s daughter was working for. Huston (recently seen in Wolverine) easily tosses off wild-eyed insanity dressed up in nicely tailored corporate poise.
And the great Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, The Departed, Indy 4) swaggers his Cockney weight through the film’s back rooms as a mysterious cleaner, the kind of off-the-grid, black-ops guy bad people call when loose ends need tying up. Winstone’s seen-it-all whiskey sipping and fine-cigar puffing perfectly balances out Craven’s single-minded determination and Huston’s sickly sweet menace.
All of this is nicely stirred by Martin Campbell, who directed the original 1985 BBC series from which Edge of Darkness is condensed. Campbell, whose 2006 Casino Royale so ably rebooted the Bond series, goes easy on the usual too-easy trappings of this sort of thriller–he delivers a somewhat restrained film that still shows off plenty of action tricks picked up from the Bond films. It doesn’t hurt that he's working from a fine-tuned script co-authored by William Monahan, the Boston-rooted writer of Scorsese's The Departed.
Edge of Darkness isn’t a “must-see” film—it doesn’t transcend its vengeance formula or offer up much new or revitalizing to the genre. But it clips along with no major stumbles, making it a well-taken first step on Gibson’s career comeback and the first easily recommended theatrical entertainment of the new year.