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Friday, Jan. 29, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson Crosses the Line

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In the pair of emotionally contradictory images that open Mel Gibson’s Edge of Darkness, swollen corpses surfacing on a moonlit river are followed without pause by grainy home video of a little girl playing in the surf. A line is drawn between those images soon enough. The little girl in the surf, Emma Craven, has grown up and graduated from MIT. Emma (Bojana Novakovic) has something to do with those corpses. And by the end of the second scene, she is lying dead in the strong arms of her dad, Boston police detective Tom Craven (Gibson), shot down by assassins who speed away into the rainy night.

Everyone assumes Detective Craven was the target, a revenge hit for sending someone or other down river to prison. Craven thinks so too, until the evidence begins adding up to a different answer, a sum of criminality larger and more sinister than any case he was ever called on to solve.

On the surface, Edge of Darkness is similar to the vengeance quest that first brought Gibson to worldwide attention, Mad Max, the story of a cop who goes beyond the law to hunt his wife’s killers. But Edge of Darkness also has a deeper DNA. Like Robert Aldrich’s classic film noir, Kiss Me Deadly, Edge of Darkness involves a detective who descends along a trail of fear into a murderous underworld of nuclear trafficking. Emma worked for Northmoor, a government contractor whose mission is classified and whose secrecy its own private security force enforces. The swollen corpses are activists from a radical anti-nuclear group. And the federal government has its own interest in policing a situation that threatens to spiral into chaos.

Grounded on Gibson’s familiar persona, Craven is a laconic, sad-eyed man staring warily at the world from a face carved in stone. He has a soulful side. Like all the good characters in Edge of Darkness, he owns a turntable and spins vintage vinyl. Intriguingly, in a screenplay that mixes and matches clever dialogue with patchy plotting and maudlin passages, we don’t know what happened to Craven’s wife or why he refuses to touch liquor (though he keeps a dusty bottle of whiskey in the kitchen). Just don’t get Craven mad. Those weary eyes will flare into a withering gaze, and this slightly disheveled, unhappy man will turn into an implacable foe, starring down speeding cars with a firm grip on his semiautomatic. As the movie begins to slip from the bonds of probability, he will kill and kill again.

The film’s most fascinating character is a mysterious operative of low cast British origins (Ray Winstone), a cynical yet philosophical man who seems tired of cleaning up the dirty secrets of America’s government and corporations. And there are many secrets in Edge ofDarkness, whose political paranoia recalls such 1970s thrillers as The Parallax View but with the squealing tires and bloodletting of a contemporary Hollywood action flick. Gibson is older and grayer than in Mad Max, but remains convincing as the avenging angel of justice.

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