Review: “Edge of Darkness”

The hair’s a little thinner, the facial lines a little deeper, but otherwise Mel Gibson hasn’t changed much in his nearly eight year break from leading role status. Unfortunately he’s one of the only usually reliable things not broken in “Edge of Darkness”, an oddly emasculated remake of the cult BAFTA award-winning 1985 British mini-series of the same name.

Eschewing the original’s period-specific Thatcherism, hints of Gaia theology and Cold War politics, scribes William Monahan (“The Departed”) and Andrew Bovell (“Lantana”) whittle down Troy Kennedy Martin’s original six-hour conspiracy drama script into a more personal revenge-fuelled reinterpretation of the story of grieving cop Thomas Craven (Gibson) hunting down those responsible for gunning down his 20-something daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) in front of his house. In this take, his off-book investigations lead him to her employers, private weapons contractors Northmoor who potentially irradiated a group of activists threatening to expose their shady dealings.

Some of the problems here are the same as last year’s movie adaptation of 2003 UK mini-series “State of Play”, namely the compression of a rich, intelligent, ground-breaking six-hour character drama into a broader, two-hour plot-driven formulaic thriller. Both shift the focus of their conspiracy from Government/energy industry collusion to corrupt private military contractors, and add a few awkwardly inserted action beats to spice things up. In the process both lose depth, realism, suspense, pacing, freshness and dramatic impact to various degrees – turning once compelling and brilliant material into decent but familiar fodder.

‘Edge’ suffers more though thanks to a less interesting premise, flawed scripting, dialled-in performances and tonal disparity. To be fair, the writers have pretty much done the best they could with the change of setting and compression – the Boston location being well incorporated into the story, while some dialogue touches hit nicely home. However in the twenty-five years since the original we’ve seen more elaborate and stronger conspiracy thrillers come and go, rendering this short-changed contemporary version laughably cliched. These days we’re more surprised when large companies are NOT involved in shady meetings and back room deals with the Government.

That leaves the more personal, grief-driven main storyline to do most of the heavy lifting, which it does with only mixed success. When it’s kept simple it works, Gibson conveying the personal grief of a father trying to keep it together after the loss of a child hits home in his few emotional scenes such as his post-shooting shock, his near breakdown sitting alone in a park, even his angry carjacking of the Northmoor chairman. Too much time however is spent dwelling on this grief, bogging down much of the pace for most of the first 90 minutes, while the auditory/visual hallucinations are not executed well – especially the film’s laughably silly coda.

Ultimately the film wants to be seen as a revenge thriller, one of the more deceptive genres out there because it’s one of the easiest to write and conceptualise, but one of the most overplayed and hardest to execute skilfully. What has to be decided up front is the tone – whether to try a dark and deadly serious drama, or to embrace the cheese and deliver a more visceral experience. The cleaner and fresher the premise, and the more conviction with which both the lead and filmmaker pursues their take on it, the better its effectiveness. Too often though the ones that don’t work either overreach, play it too safe or familiar, or simply don’t have the courage of their convictions.

In this case it’s the overreach and the familiarity that breeds the contempt. Its dourness robs it of any real energy, its premise becomes far too unnecessarily complicated in ways all too predictable, and twists are essentially non-existent. The main character’s motivation and growth is more difficult to empathise with than it should be as Gibson underplays the character’s introspection to the point that his cool resolve can often be mistaken for overmedication. Not helping is the daughter character is so barely explored or even seen on screen.

Ray Winstone has the most interesting character, the disenchanted independent enforcer who acts as a middle management puppet master. Far wiser than those he works for, Winstone plays him as a laconic wildcard – a man who understands and even respects Gibson’s character but one who can never be entirely trusted. Though he looks a little stereotypical for the character, a more unassuming-looking wiry type would’ve been more effective visually, the actor delivers the understated performance with just the right tone – a nice albeit mildly curious role in a film otherwise devoid of interesting characters. The various supporting roles are of little consequence, Danny Huston’s spineless Northmoor chairman is at least refreshingly slimy amidst all the anonymous dour schemers who often stop to explain everything rather than letting us the viewer discover for ourselves.

The biggest shocker is returning director Martin Campbell, who first made a name for himself helming the original mini-series. Given the right material, Campbell has successfully pulled off three great action franchise reboots (Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale), but has delivered his share of turkeys as well (Beyond Borders, Vertical Limit, The Legend of Zorro). Its few scant moments of action are fine, but ‘Darkness’ is an otherwise oddly detached affair devoid of any suspense and often very flatly and anonymously directed which reduces its visceral impact considerably.

What’s delivered here is disappointingly neutered in its own right, but considering the talent and material involved it’s almost heart breaking. The original “Edge of Darkness” had, well, edge – taking what starts out as a straight up vengeful cop drama and taking it on strange sojourns early David Lynch (or even early David Cronenberg) would be proud of. There’s no talk of a nuclear-fuelled solar empire and the Earth itself developing an immune system reaction to mankind here, the aim of the remake was to deliver something more grounded and accessible for mass consumption. The film’s last act delivers retribution in a way that will generally please, but what could’ve been a potential highlight on the resume of all involved will instead likely disappear – it’s not bad enough to be a blight, but it’s nowhere near good enough to be talked about with any serious consideration.