Back from the Edge of Obscurity
Mel Gibson’s absence from the silver screen may have been necessary, but not all welcomed it. Moviegoers went six long years without a proper vengeful father figure striking fear into the hearts of those who wronged him. It’s a fairly specific genre, but one Gibson owned since he went a bit whacko in 1987’s Lethal Weapon. After that, Ransom, Payback, and The Patriot all grossed more than $150 million worldwide and all centrally dealt with the main character’s quests for retribution. Then there was a drought of “vengeful father” movies. Unfortunately for Mel, it ended a year before his return to the silver screen.
Taken elevated the stakes of the genre like nothing had since Mel came along. Liam Neeson as a one-man wrecking ball was all the clichés rolled into one and multiplied on top of each other: a high octane, edge of your seat thrill ride. It wasn’t perfect, but it took the country by storm in early 2009. A box office gross of $226 million worldwide says it all, especially in comparison to the $79 million haul of Edge of Darkness.
Is it fair to match up Neeson’s smash hit with Gibson’s comeback role? Well, when watched all the way through, it’s not. The first is a straightforward thriller while the latter is more of a conspiracy cop drama. Nevertheless, with similar premises, aging action stars in the lead roles, and nearly identical posters, Edge of Darkness basically takes on the role of the sequel here. Despite what the film’s marketing department may think (“Hey, why don’t we try to make this look like Taken so we can make some money from it?”), this is not a good fit for Mel’s movie.
In his mostly triumphant return, Gibson stars as Thomas Craven, a single father and Boston detective. When his daughter, Emma, is murdered outside his house, he assumes it was an ex-con with bad aim. Then he starts to dig a little deeper. You see, Emma was sick when she came home and was about to tell her dad something before she was shot down at his side. Before you can do your best Leo Dicaprio impersonation from The Departed, there’s a suspicious boyfriend, an oddball former boss, and an intellectual British hit man named Jedburgh (played sharply by Ray Winstone) who comes around on occasion to dole out advice.
It doesn’t quite sound like Taken, does it? It’s not, but what it lacks in action, it more than makes up for with engaging dialog and attitude – crazy “Boston” cop kind of attitude. Gibson’s thick, B-movie accent, combined with Winstone’s quirky, calculated British demeanor, make a convincing colloquy. They hold a terrific old Hollywood rapport between two individuals who aren’t quite friends, but are certainly not foes. They’re just two people working toward a similar goal with slightly different personal interests. Unfortunately, we never get to fully appreciate Jedburgh’s interests, while Craven’s are made unquestionably clear.
The film turns a little too procedural in its second half. We know who’s dirty. We just have to wait to see how they’re going to get dropped. Even if director Martin Campbell (who directed the 1985 BBC miniseries of the same name) can’t quite keep us twisting until the end, though, he knows how to create an atmosphere of controlled, reasonable menace. There’s not always someone lurking in a closet or behind a door. Campbell’s camera moves fluidly and his clever framing sets up some key scenes cleanly. There aren’t any cheap tricks. Every so often, though, a jarring shock occurs to lift the audience out of their seats.
That is, if they’re not already on the edge, thanks to the familiar gripping performance from Gibson. He twists and contorts his face in enough expressions of anger and despair to form a new set of lines on his already aged face. He’s not too manic, though, as he has been in the past. He can and does sit still from time to time and convince us he’s serious just with his cold, hard stare. He’s done this before, but that’s the point. He’s great at it. Plus, this time we get him with an accent! A “Bah-ston” accent! Not only that, but he’s a little older, a little more weary, and there’s so much more context behind his impassioned explosions.
We know more about Gibson’s personal demons than we care to, but the framework of his outbursts here keep those thoughts out of mind. Some may want to read more into it, but it’s really not there. Gibson is just trying to give us what we want. Of course, he wants to resurrect his career, but he didn’t shy away from subject matter perfect for his craft because some people might be reminded of his real life past. He embraces it and we should do the same.
Just as we embrace Gibson for who he is onscreen and not off it, we should accept Edge of Darkness for what it tries to be and not what its marketers try to spin it into. It’s not Taken, an idea Campbell basically addresses head-on in one of the disc’s many brief special features. “This is not one of those fast-and-furious sort of knock-‘em-up kind of thrillers”, Campbell says. “This is a thinking man’s thriller”. This may be a slight overstatement, but he’s essentially right. The film doesn’t require Craven to enter a building packed with goons and shoot his way out. Instead, Edge of Darkness has plenty of big pieces that need to be snapped into place and only a few heads in need of busting. It’s a good thing they’ve got just the guy to bust ‘em. Welcome back, Mel.