Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cusp of Hilarity

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.



Tony Dayoub said...

While I'm certain I won't change your opinion of the film, I disagree with your F grade. It was nice to see Gibson return in what has become his defined role as cinema's ultimate masochist. Here, he doesn't suffer physically as much as he does emotionally, but a lot of it is self-inflicted nonetheless.

As for the film, it doesn't quite reach the level of absurdity I admired in Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT, but it certainly offers plenty gutter-level luridness and histrionics. I thought the movie was fun once you got past all of the ugly grimness.

And EDGE OF DARKNESS is definitely hinting at something political beyond its two-dimensional appearance. It reaches out to the disenfranchised tea-partiers in the audience, its hero a timely representative of the independents fighting against the machinations of the emotionally challenged corporate types thought to be giving the country away to foreign interests.

I don't agree with the politics, but I was intrigued by the usually liberal Hollywood addressing the concerns of many disenfranchised Americans. It will be interesting to see how this movie stands as a cultural artifact years from now.

Brandon Colvin said...

While I certain found the film absurd, it differs from BAD LIEUTENANT in that EDGE OF DARKNESS' absurdity arises from a tiresome plod through predictability rather than the "His soul's still dancing" left-fieldism of Herzog's film. As far as the absurd goes, it was much more Sisyphean than surrealist.

While I can understand the political suggestions you mention, I saw the character as more apolitical than anything else, not any sort of frustrated independent. His outrage is merely fueled by personal loss, continuing in the standard Hollywood tradition of robbing characters of any sort of ideological motivation in order to sidestep politicizing them. Additionally, the presence of the company reinforces both environmentalist paranoia and everyone's-a-terrorist paranoia, becoming a catchall target rather than anything that holds any nuanced argument about eh role of corporations in America. It could certainly be co-opted as a cinematic torch of independent politics, but I think that would involve much more projection from viewers rather than any derivation of specific meaning from the film, which seems far too jumbled and unfocused to present any sort of coherent political argument.

Tony Dayoub said...

The entire last paragraph of your response, Brandon, only reinforces the link between Gibson's character and real-life disenfranchised contrarians I refer to.

I think I misused the term "independent" because of the longstanding connotations associated with it. I'm talking more about the ignorant contrarians out there who seem to feed off of political trolls like Glenn Beck, with little basic knowledge of their own on issues of the day. Gibson's hero strikes the same populist note which characterizes that demographic.

Brandon Colvin said...

In that case, I completely agree with you. Political buzzwords are easily misconstrued these days and I apologize if I misunderstood your argument. Those who might seek to interpret Gibson's character as a rogue truth-teller in the vein of Beck and his ilk have plenty to latch onto in EDGE OF DARKNESS.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, here's what I WON"T be seeing...any more Mel Gibson movies.

lan said...

Its been a while since last time seen him.
Watched the tailor have not seen the movie yet.Only one thing I am sure this one wont as good as brave heart