January 27, 2010

Edge of Darkness

starstar

A movie review by James Berardinelli



Edge of Darkness

THRILLER:

United Kingdom/United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-01-29

Running Length:

1:57

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic, Shawn Roberts, David Aaron Baker, Jay O. Sanders

Director:

Martin Campbell

Screenplay:

William Monahan and Andrew Bovell, based on the television series by Troy Kennedy Martin

Cinematography:

Phil Meheux

Music:

Howard Shore

U.S. Distributor:

Warner Brothers

Subtitles:

none


Considering the talent involved and the strength of the source material, there's no way Edge of Darkness should have been this disappointing. Part of the problem is a direct result of condensation - there's no way to cram six hours of the dense mini-series upon which the movie is based into about 110 minutes without paying a penalty. More surprising, however, is the inconsistency of some of the production elements - acting, dialogue, direction - and these are delivered by seasoned veterans. Edge of Darkness has earned its January release date - this movie deserves to be dumped into theaters with little fanfare.

The British mini-series, which debuted on the BBC in 1985, comprised six episodes and was written by the late screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, whose resume also lists such highly respected projects as Reilly: Ace of Spies and Z-Cars. A tense, convoluted Cold War series, Edge of Darkness offered insurmountable challenges to adapters William Monahan and Andrew Bovell. The dialogue is often cheesy and their re-working of the story places it in a curious limbo between the incomprehensible and the obvious. When it comes to the more conventional murder-mystery aspects of the film, the viewer is always too steps ahead. For example, we know from the moment we first meet one secondary character that he's going to end up on the wrong side. The deeper aspect of the narrative, which involves government-sponsored conspiracies, is poorly explained, despite frequent pauses for bouts of expository dialogue. Those expecting a testosterone rush are going to be disappointed. The movie has bursts of action, but they are buffered by long, tedious periods when not a lot happens. But at least we get that memorable one-liner: "You'd better decide whether you're hanging on the cross, or banging in the nails!"

Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) is a lonely Boston police officer who dotes on his grown-up daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic). He keeps replaying old home movies of her as a little girl in his head. He's delighted when she comes home for a stay, but his excitement turns to concern when she becomes ill. As they leave for the hospital, a masked gunman arrives at his doorstep and blows a hole through Emma's chest. Craven is devastated but determined to avenge his daughter. Common wisdom indicates Emma's death was a case of mistaken identity - that the real mark was Craven and the killer is an ex-con holding a grudge. Craven isn't so sure, however. He learns that Emma's sickness was radiation poisoning and his questioning of her boss, Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), enflames his suspicions. Meanwhile, a shady government operative named Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), makes contact with Craven and lets him know that if he's going to pursue his investigation, he's going to have to proceed outside of the law. The responsible parties will never be brought to justice in conventional ways.

For Mel Gibson, this represents an attempt at a comeback. His last starring role was eight years ago, when he was among Hollywood's elite. Since then, he has developed into a polarizing and controversial figure, first for his direction of The Passion of the Christ then for the ugly incident in which a drunk and disorderly Gibson uttered a series of anti-Semitic slurs. Having stayed out of the spotlight for more than three years (his last involvement with any film was as the creative force behind Apocalypto), Gibson has elected to return to the screen by playing a familiar type: a revenge-minded cop working outside of the law. Craven isn't Riggs without the wacky sense of humor, however. He's much closer to Porter, the character from Payback. The difference is that Payback was solid popcorn entertainment - well-paced and drunk on adrenaline; Edge of Darkness is turgid and uneven. And, as with a sports star who has returned to the game after a long layoff, Gibson shows signs of rust. There are times when his trademark intensity emerges, but other instances when he appears to be reading from cue-cards. Still, he fares better than Danny Huston, whose delivery of dialogue is so stiff it's almost laughable.

One of the movie's pleasures is the work of Ray Winstone, whose sinister character emerges from the shadows wreathed in mystery. Edge of Darkness works primarily when Winstone is on-screen, and does so because the actor is hypnotic. As written, Jedburgh is an inscrutable shell, but Winstone makes him not only more human but also more dangerous. One senses that Edge of Darkness would have been significantly more compelling had the story focused less on Craven and more on Jedburgh.

Director Martin Campbell is in an intriguing situation, having been accorded the task of updating his own material (he helmed the mini-series). Perhaps Campbell is too close to the production to see its missteps, but he never solves the riddle of how to smooth out the pacing and provide the dramatic momentum necessary to keep viewers invested. Campbell is a two-time Bond director, having ushered in Pierce Brosnan with Goldeneye and performed the same task for Daniel Craig with Casino Royale, and his finesse with action scenes is evident. However, some of the less high-voltage material defeats him. There are times when events are presented with such awkwardness that the film almost plays as a parody. The first scene between Gibson and Huston seems like a filmed rehearsal.

Occasionally, it is possible to transform a long, complex mini-series into a motion picture (Traffic being an example) but, more often than not, the result presents the cobbled-together feel of Edge of Darkness. With the material improperly focused, the final product lacks momentum and direction. This is 2010's first big cinematic disappointment - instead of a tense, tightly-plotted thriller, we're saddled with a lumbering misfire.

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