Sunday, January 31, 2010

Living on the EDGE OF DARKNESS

For a knee-jerk reactionary vigilante thriller, Edge of Darkness is surprisingly restrained with a long, slow burn of a mystery capped with swift brutal vengeance doled out in efficient action beats. It often follows a traditional structure for this type of movie, but it’s still shockingly satisfying even if we’ve more or less been here before.

At the film’s opening a corpse bubbles up to the surface of a lake with an ominous factory in the background. We return to this event later, but for the time being we are introduced to a grizzled Boston detective played by Mel Gibson. Whatever you think of his personal behavior (his drunken anti-Semitic rant is rightly a permanent smudge on his reputation) he has a compelling screen presence. He’s not a great actor, necessarily, but he has a force that draws attention and sympathy. In the opening moments of the film, his character is meeting his twenty-something daughter (Bojana Novakovic) who is returning home during time off from the nuclear facility at which she works. Just when we get our bearings she’s gunned down on the front porch, just minutes into the film. The act of violence is shocking in its force and gore, the shot flinging her back through the door with blood splattering the doorframe and staining the rug. But, as we are told, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, especially in the kind of movie in which the bereaved father has access to all the tools of a professional detective.

Probing the mystery of his daughter’s murder, Gibson visits her place of work, which brings us to the ominous factory of the opening shot. There he meets her boss, a slimy executive played by the great Danny Huston. Although he’s clearly the villain from the minute he walks on screen, Huston plays it so well, so coolly, that the point isn’t “how’d or why’d he do it?”, but “when will he be taken down?” Along the way, there are plenty of other slimeballs propped up as fodder for the vengeance machine, including an infuriating senator (Damian Young) and a shadowy suit (Denis O’Hare). There’s also a wild card whose allegiances may or may not be slippery; he’s played by the always welcome Ray Winstone who brings a performance filled with perfect shades of gray.

Gibson’s search for the truth is entertainingly handled, with this slick, professional production smoothly turning the gears of the plot. By the time the big reveals occur, the sensation of bloody justice feels earned. It is always a little queasy to have a movie so thoroughly work up the blood lust, coaxing dark feelings of violence out of the audience, but this movie, despite its sometimes squishy gunshots, doesn’t linger on injury in unseemly ways, nor does it go out of its way to glamorize the violence. This is a tight thriller with sharp blasts of satisfying revenge. Director Martin Campbell, adapting a 1980's miniseries that he directed, does a capable job of managing tone and expectations. The movie held my interest all the way through. I cared about Gibson’s quest for revenge and, yes, I felt a rush of adrenaline every time he moved closer to his ultimate goal. This is a smoothly enjoyable piece of popcorn filmmaking, a dependable, if ultimately slight, piece of entertainment.

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