When I sat down to watch Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson's first starring role in almost a decade, I was thinking about last year's Taken, another film about an aging ex-military man on the trail of violent revenge against those who wronged his daughter. By the time I was leaving, I was thinking about Payback, a movie that started out a specific type of thriller and ended up awkwardly fashioned into a popcorn movie by studio folks with a pair of scissors and a few reels of reshoots. Rock-bottom January expectations might gain the movie a few fans (it's still probably better than Legion), but the final product is clearly neutered, and any fleeting thrills provided by what's left behind wear off in a hurry.
The first few reels of Darkness unfold as a twitchy, paranoid conspiracy thriller, one that begins with Emma Craven (Bojana Novakovic) and her employment with top-secret nuclear facility Northmoor and ends with her murder on the front porch of her childhood home, while her police officer father Thomas (Gibson) watches helplessly. A cursory search through her belongings reveals a few surprises, and Thomas is off and running, trying to unravel the mystery of what exactly her daughter was up to in her final days, and how it involves a nervous boyfriend (Shawn Roberts), a senator (Damian Young), and slimy Northmoor executive Jack Bennett (Danny Huston).
Thomas is plagued by visions of Emma as a young girl, visions he often speaks to. It's a silly device, but some of the cheesiness is lessened by the lingering shock of Emma's extremely violent death. To say her killing is cold-blooded is an understatement. Gibson illustrates Thomas's pain well, and for those curious about his performance, he's fine in the movie. I'm not personally interested or affected by Gibson's personal troubles, and I haven't seen several of his movies, but in those I have, I've liked him well enough; he's got good physicality and can sell a quiet moment or two. The last eight years have not noticeably altered his on-screen persona, and nothing in Darkness takes him out of his comfort zones. He's just Mel Gibson, movie star, and ultimately, the viewer's personal taste for the actor will matter more than anything he's actually doing in the movie. The only quibble is his attempt at a Boston accent, which raises the pitch of his voice slightly, but never tips over into full-on embarrassment.
Gibson's star power and the reasonably complicated mystery would be enough for a passable, if familiar thriller, but about 30 minutes in, things take an obvious turn. There's a scene in a parking garage where a nebbish Northmoor executive meets with Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a "professional" who solves unusual problems, and their conversation reeks of freshly-shot audience pandering. Having seen several of Campbell's previous movies (which include Goldeneye, the Banderas Zorro movies, and Casino Royale), he strikes me as a director who's entirely at the mercy of the material he's given, and the material in this scene is much worse than everything that comes before it, from the nearly-cartoonish lighting to the extremely expository nature of the conversation (Winstone's end is almost completely useless). I'd guess that around 30 minutes of Edge of Darkness consists of reshoots, and they all stick out like a sore thumb. Last January, Taken grossed $145 million, and Warner Brothers clearly wants some of that dough for themselves.
The nip-and-tuck operation unsurprisingly tosses the dread out the window and aims for something that requires less patience. From his first scene to his last, Winstone's character suffers the most; Jedburgh's motivation is entirely unclear, reducing the role to a walking deus ex machina. As for the movie itself, there's a good 15 to 18 minute chunk of blatantly redone material during the third act, and while the new version contains a small measure of effective B-movie catharsis in one of Thomas' more clever methods of revenge, the film is too impatient even for that, refusing to let the moment lie in a desperate bid for the audience to keep cheering. Other quibbles include bizarre cutting during seemingly straightforward conversations, including repetitive dialogue (in Thomas' first meeting with Bennett, and a later conversation with one of Emma's terrified friends) and abrupt scene endings (Thomas' angry farewell to a lawyer, and Bennett's shockingly straightforward question about child loss). Admittedly, Bennett's query has a payoff later, but it doesn't make the setup any less confusing. I wonder if the editor fell asleep at the wheel.
All in all, it's not that I couldn't have liked a basic B-revenge thriller, just that it's hard to enjoy 25% of a film when the other, better 75% is going in the opposite direction. Then again, the audience I saw it with seemed plenty entertained, so maybe Warner's gambit will pay off. Last year, two of my favorite articles on film were written by Devin Faraci over at CHUD, who examined how Terminator Salvation and Avatar became different movies somewhere between treatment and final cut. Maybe Edge of Darkness can be next. I mean, who knows what I'd have thought about the film had it been left alone, but I definitely liked where it was going better than where it went. I'd wager that a detail-thick conspiracy thriller would not only be a more satisfying movie, but probably closer to the original BBC miniseries, even if neither "version" of the movie would have measured up (I haven't seen it, but I hear good things). Oh, well. Near the end of the movie, a character pleads with Thomas to let things go. "It isn't what it is!" No, I suppose it isn't.
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