Returning to the role of avenging angel that’s served him so well in the past (in everything from “The Patriot” to “Ransom”) and in front of the camera for the first time in eight years, Mel Gibson plays a Boston cop out to get the villains responsible for the death of his daughter in “Edge of Darkness,” a dark, brooding “Death Wish”-style melodrama that aims for the complexity of a good political thriller but doesn’t quite achieve it.
That’s partially because the film is a return for director Martin Campbell, too—an updating of a six-hour British miniseries he made back in 1985. Though he and scripters William Monahan and Andrew Bovell have tried mightily to freshen it up, the movie still seems dated. While the plot twists might have been surprising in the original longer format, in this much abbreviated version they’re curiously obvious, and the plot holes extremely noticeable. Some of the casting choices, moreover, accentuate the weaknesses.
Gibson, looking older but still fit and certainly intense, is Thomas Craven, a widowed Beantown detective introduced as he waits for daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) to return home for a visit. She arrives but proves to be ill, coughing up blood. But as he tries to rush her to the emergency room, they’re confronted on their stoop by a ski-masked gunman who shouts a single word—“Craven,” fires a shotgun and kills her.
At first it’s thought that Thomas was the intended victim and his daughter an accidental casualty, but the grieving father comes to believe otherwise and goes on a mission to ferret out the truth. His circuit brings him into contact with a raft of sinister characters: Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), Emma’s boss at some huge top-secret business with government connections; her boyfriend David Burnham (Shawn Roberts), who has an acute sense of the frights himself; and Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a smooth-talking British fixer who’s adept at making problems—and people—disappear. There are also a snooty senator (Damian Young) and his smarmy advisor (Denis O’Hare); bunches of black-suited goons following people around in big SUVs and occasionally running them down; lots of cops (including Jay O. Sanders as Whitehouse, a chum of Craven’s); a sleazy lawyer; Melissa (Caterina Scorsone), a panicky young lady who was a friend of Emma’s; the leader of a group of anti-nuclear activists; and even Emma’s ghost, who periodically appears to her father to console him, one supposes. At the beginning we’re also treated to a shot of three corpses bubbling up in a river. Who they are, and how they’re related to what’s happening, will eventually be revealed.
But despite all the clutter of characters and plot turns, the attempts of the movie to misdirect us doesn’t work. Once you witness Emma’s sickness and the ID card identifying her as a nuclear engineer, it’s pretty clear what’s going on, and though you hope that some of the characters played by actors who automatically exude villainy might turn out to be red herrings, for the most part all of them turn out to be exactly what you imagine at first sight. But the worst part of “Edge of Darkness” is a cheat at the very start, one that renders the whole convoluted plot nonsensical. (A spoiler question: Why would anybody shoot down somebody they’ve already effectively killed by other means? Answer: Because there would be no movie if they didn’t.) You also have to chuckle over the ending flourish swiped from “Three Days of the Condor.” The assurance that getting something to a crusading press would assure the defeat of evil was a perfect close in the post-Watergate era, but today it comes across as ludicrously naïve.
Gibson does what he can to keep the narrative humming along, despite its flaws. He suffers mightily, fights and shoots determinedly when required (looking better at it than the aging Harrison Ford, for example), and strikes threatening poses with much of the old power. And one hopes that the tattered raincoat he always wears is intended as a salute to Columbo. One misses, though, any religious dimension to his character. Sure, he wears a prominent silver cross on a chain around his neck in a few early scenes, but where’s the Irish pastor come to comfort him in his grief, or the big confessional scene? The script might have been based on a British original, but if you’re going to move the action to Boston, you’d better get your cliches in line.
Among the rest of the cast, only Winstone stands out, giving the smoothly diabolical Jedburgh a delicious sense of menace, even if he remains an opaque figure. Like all the characters, the fixer is a none-note person, but in his case the note is worth hearing.
Visually, the picture is solid—fine cinematography (Phil Meheux), smooth editing (Stuart Baird), unobtrusively supportive score (Howard Shore). But it asks you to put a lot of effort into figuring out a plot that turns out to be not only disappointingly simple but distressingly dumb.