Thursday, February 4, 2010

Edge of Darkness: Not too sharp

Edge of Darkness (2010) • View trailer for Edge of Darkness
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy DVD: Edge of Darkness• Buy Blu-Ray: Edge of Darkness [Blu-ray]

Mel, Mel, Mel ... you do suffer so.

Whether getting goosed by a cattle prod (Lethal Weapon), tortured by the sick fear that his belligerence may have doomed his kidnapped son (Ransom) or disemboweled, drawn and quartered (Braveheart), Gibson's on-camera meltdowns are the stuff of legend.
Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson, left) comes home one
evening to find shadowy government operative Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone)
in his living room. The two retire to the kitchen and some vintage whiskey,
where Jedburgh drops cryptic hints while promising not to kill Craven ... yet.
As might be imagined, that's rather cold comfort.

He's never less than wholly persuasive at such moments, and many of his film roles clearly have been designed to capitalize on this talent for anguish on demand.

Even if the Christ-on-the-cross parallels have grown tiresome over the years.

And Gibson's Thomas Craven certainly gets plenty of opportunities for agonized self-doubt in Edge of Darkness, which concerns a veteran Boston homicide detec-tive's stubborn, rage-fueled mission to discover why his only child  24-year-old Emma (Bohana Novakovic)  was killed under rather puzzling circumstances.

Gibson does reasonably well in his first big-screen starring role since 2002's Signs; he continues to exploit the riveting presence that has served him so well, during a long and varied acting career.

Alas, as a comeback vehicle, Edge of Darkness rather lets him down.

This story began as a six-hour British TV miniseries back in 1985, each episode scripted by Troy Kennedy-Martin and directed by Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale). The latter has returned to helm this big-screen American movie adaptation, but the writing chores have fallen to William Monahan and Andrew Bovell ... and, frankly, they've screwed it up.

You do the math: The original miniseries ran 317 minutes, and this film clocks in at 117 minutes. So if the result frequently feels like a Readers Digest Condensed Books version of a much more substantial narrative, you're not imagining things.

Monahan and Bovell's egregious oversights and sloppy writing range from the minor  failing to explain how Craven's wife died, at some point during (following?) Emma's adolescent years  to the truly laughable: suggesting that the Boston Police Department would simply tolerate Craven's increasingly violent behavior (and mounting body count) without so much as a suggestion that he seek counseling.

The thin band of credibility doesn't merely stretch in this film; it snaps and breaks into half a dozen pieces.

Savvy viewers will realize, and rather quickly, that we're dealing with a classic "idiot plot": a story that lurches from one scene to the next solely because each and every character behaves like a complete idiot at all times.

OK, that may be overstating the case a bit. Ray Winstone's turn as shadowy government operative Darius Jedburgh is never less than fascinating, and he's the one character here who behaves consistently, intelligently and provocatively. Jedburgh is a riff on Max von Sydow's career assassin in 1975's Three Days of the Condor: a methodical, cold-blooded killer who "finesses" any given assignment according to his own inclinations.

Jedburgh's path crosses Craven's when the latter starts poking into issues relating to national security, but it's clear that this black-ops "fixer" admires and sympathizes with the bereaved Boston cop. Their periodic meetings  in Craven's kitchen, on a public park bench  are laced with the piquant dialogue that characterizes the best espionage thrillers.

Which proves that Monahan and Bovell can write good scenes; they simply don't do it reliably.

Just as we're admiring the most recent exchange between Craven and Jedburgh, we'll shift to (for example) an interview between Craven and Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), the smarmy, condescending head of Northmoor, a top-secret research compound with clandestine government contracts.

Out of the clear blue sky, after expressing sympathy for Craven's loss, Bennett pauses and then asks, "What does it feel like?"

Absolutely one of the most tin-eared bits of dialogue ever written.

Nobody could deliver that line successfully, least of all Huston, who has become typecast as evil slime; the expectation is so solid that, when Bennett is introduced, Huston may as well wear a sign around his neck that reads "I'm the bad guy!"

The story kicks into gear when Emma visits her father in Boston. Craven can tell that something is chewing at his daughter, but she never gets the chance to explain the situation. Suddenly she's dead, and within days Craven has spread her ashes at "her favorite beach."

Uh-huh. There's an intelligent move: cremating the body, absent a thorough post-mortem, after having seen that Emma was clearly very, very sick for some mysterious reason, bleeding from her nose and vomiting unexpectedly.

We begin to wonder if Craven, despite what the script tells us about his career, deserves to be respected as one of the brightest pennies in the roll.

After finding a handgun in her possessions  an odd accessory for somebody employed as an intern at a research facility, which is all Craven knows about Emma's work  our hero embarks on his own private investigation. Naturally, his buddies at Boston PD look the other way. The increasingly complicated quest expands to include a terrified boyfriend, nasty men in a black SUV, the aforementioned Bennett, a group of tree-hugging environmental activists and a U.S. senator.

And Jedburgh, of course, who always knows more than he admits, but obligingly points Craven in a fresh direction each time things get too confusing.

Given a six-hour tapestry, Kennedy-Martin had plenty of time to weave all the necessary subplots into his increasingly complicated narrative, and the core element — the "big secret" that Craven eventually uncovers  has lost none of its timeliness during the past quarter-century. But Monahan and Bovell rush us through key details with the pell-mell fury of a roller coaster ride, scarcely pausing long enough to worry about whether anything really makes sense. (Too frequently, it doesn't.)

Campbell, always most comfortable with action scenes, orchestrates the violent mayhem with considerable flair; there's no denying the vicarious thrill of watching Mel uncork another bottle of whup-ass on Those Who Deserve It. But I'm saddened to see that Campbell couldn't better control and modulate the necessary exposition with similar skill; the original British miniseries  which, remember, he also helmed  quite deservedly took six BAFTA honors and placed 15th on the British Film Institute's Top 100 television list.

This big-screen incarnation, in great contrast, will be remembered as no more than a typically over-plotted and under-developed revenge thriller that would have starred Charles Bronson back at his prime: the sort of flick characterized by momentum more than common sense.

Gibson is unlikely to see any career payback (pun intended) from this misfire, and that's a shame; he and Winstone do commendable work here.

Too bad the film itself can't live up to their talents.

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