by Brandon Colvin
Saturday Night Live, that bastion of incisive film criticism, featured a sketch this week in which Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness – a condensed remake of the former Bond director’s own 1985 BBC miniseries – was described as a combination of elements from other horrible Mel Gibson vehicles: Ransom (1996), Conspiracy Theory (1997), and Payback (1999). What’s shocking is how humorously accurate the observation is. Mel loses child. Mel gets obsessed with harebrained political intrigue. Mel goes on a violent rampage. That’s the film. As SNL noted, it’s basically a compilation of scenes from other half-assed Gibson thrillers sloppily pasted together with a nice glob of whiz-bang. The film, which verges on farce, amounts to a jumble of worn-out plot devices, tritely philosophical one-liners, and ridiculous anti-corporate paranoia manifested in a government-sponsored nuclear research company that surreptitiously makes bombs for – gasp! – Middle Eastern terrorists. Seriously? Gibson’s weathered, incessantly snarling mug suggests so. Like SNL, I beg to differ.
As mourning/frantic/self-loathing homicide detective Thomas Craven, Gibson’s strained, pseudo-Bostonian bark amounts to little more than a hyperbolic hamfest of grunts, growls, and grumblings, suggesting that the actor may have a future in some sort of post-post-modern comedy shtick (I’m looking at you, Lorne Michaels). His performance presents an unintentional parody of the revenge-driven macho-maniacal hardass, one that repeatedly pushes the film to the point of hysterics, even when tempered by the typically icy demeanor of Danny Huston as the villainous Jack Bennett, proprietor of nukes and wily murderer of whistle-blowing activists – including Craven’s daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Tossed into the mix, Ray Winstone, whose talent is sadly squandered, does an adequate job of portraying Captain Jedburgh, an enigmatic British agent with unstable loyalties and a terminal illness who sips Scotch and gets introspective while problematizing Craven’s quest, conveniently popping up and uttering cryptic clues regarding Emma’s death like a hard-boiled whack-a-mole.
The convoluted plot unfolds predictably, replete with all sorts of stammering minor characters informing Craven that he’s only seen the tip of the iceberg, that the whole thing goes deeper than he can imagine, that he’s messing with the wrong folks. Craven does not heed their warnings. He continues bursting through doors, tampering with evidence, and getting involved in numerous car accidents depicted with an overabundance of tacky smash cuts. What happened to the Martin Campbell of Casino Royale (2006)? How did he go from directing one of the most crisply and vigorously structured thrillers of the past decade to creating one of the laziest, most hackneyed examples of the action aesthetic in years? Beats me. I’ll chalk it up to Gibson’s soul-sucking aura of boring conventionality haunting the film, just as the maudlin memories of his character’s dead daughter plague the shoddy narrative.
Such pedestrian paranoid-thriller clichés would be somewhat forgivable if not for Edge of Darkness’ complete fumbling of every possible instance of emotional intensity, including the aforementioned moments of sentimental drivel in which Craven recalls/imagines/hallucinates Emma. In addition to a few snippets of mysteriously non-diegetic home videos depicting a pint-sized Emma frolicking on a beach, the film features her disembodied voice muttering encouraging words to the despondent Craven – even having full conversations with him in which he all-too-obviously verbalizes his internal struggles – as well as younger versions of her inconsistently inserted into Craven’s surroundings, only to be revealed as his fleeting subjective projections in annoyingly routine reverse-shots. It’s hard to conceive of a film trying any harder to jerk a tear yet failing so miserably. Craven’s memories come off as awkward grasps at resonance that fall into eye-rolling banality, denying any investment in the character’s pain, a problem made infinitely worse by Gibson’s inability to appear sincere in between launching spittle and fists at sneering opponents.
But Edge of Darkness is not all bad; it has one great shot and one interesting character. The shot is the first of the film – a wide shot of a picturesque lake at night, moonlit and placid, doused in syrupy shadows. After a few atmospheric seconds of cricket chirps and gently sloshing water, a shape slowly emerges from the water, lumpy and amorphous. Suddenly, two more similar shapes float to the surface. A few glimpses of protruding hands and heads suggest the shapes are formerly submerged corpses, announcing themselves to the dim scenery. The film’s title appears in the center of the frame. Then the rest of the film starts and the provocative noir opening, full of understatement and patience, sinks into cornball slapdashery.
The subtle, evocative movie suggested by Edge of Darkness’ first frames would undoubtedly sideline Craven in favor of Winstone’s Capt. Jedburgh, the only character with psychological depth, a moral trajectory, or any memorable qualities. Jedburgh is conflicted, ambiguous, dangerous, and dying – all of which is glossed over, making him merely a useful cog in the film’s dues-ex-machinery. That such a promising character is relegated to serving Mel Gibson scenery to gnaw on is perhaps the worst of the film’s many failures. However, this is The Mel Gibson Show, as every bit of the film’s marketing suggests. Unfortunately, as a chunk of awkward chuckles and did-that-just-happen buffoonery Edge of Darkness is far inferior to the more cinematically-astute SNL; forget about a live studio audience, there’s not even a laugh track.