"Edge of Darkness" is a revenge thriller ripped from today's headlines. Well, ripped from the headlines of 25 years ago, anyway, back around the time when movies like "Silkwood" and "The China Syndrome" were mopping up Oscar nominations with their fact-based indictments of the nasty nuclear-energy industry.
The original "Edge of Darkness" was a 1985 BBC-TV miniseries whose director, Martin Campbell, has now turned it into a feature film, relocating the story to Boston. But Karen Silkwood was a real person, and "The China Syndrome" echoed the near-meltdown in the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. "Edge of Darkness" has no such real-world roots, and so its concern with a sinister nuclear-research corporation and the brave young anti-nuke activists determined to blow the whistle on it feels stale and dated. It's a movie whose time has passed.
The picture also manages to waste the star power of Mel Gibson, here returning to the screen in his first lead role in seven years. Gibson plays Tom Craven, a glum Boston homicide detective whose only apparent joy in life, apart from knocking back an occasional ginger ale, is his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic), now 24 and employed as a researcher at the aforementioned sinister corporation, an outfit called Northmoor. Craven is elated when Emma comes home for a visit — until he and his daughter step out the front door one night and a waiting hit man shoots her dead. Tom's fellow cops figure he was the real target, but the veteran investigator isn't so sure — especially after he goes through Emma's belongings and finds a gun and a small Geiger counter.
Setting out in search of answers, Craven tracks down Emma's mysteriously terrified boyfriend (Shawn Roberts), whose butt he unfortunately has to kick; and then an equally jittery girl named Melissa (Caterina Scorsone), who relays unsettling information about Night Flower, the anti-nuke group. Increasingly alarmed, Craven moves on to confront a sketchy corporate lawyer (Peter Hermann), a bent senator (Damian Young) and, inevitably, Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), the creamy, condescending head of Northmoor. Along the way, he also encounters a shadowy "security consultant" named Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), who tells Craven that Emma had been flagged by Northmoor and its governmental enablers as a possible terrorist.
The movie could have used a lot more of Winstone. His Jedburgh, an ambiguous mixture of menace and empathy, is the film's most intriguing character. He also gets some of the most pungent lines. ("We all know what the facts are," he says at one point. "We live a while, then we die sooner than we'd planned.") Winstone's intermittent appearances enliven the film in part because Gibson's Tom Craven is such a dispirited mope. The movie's central mystery is why the filmmakers would take an actor like Gibson — long valued for his striking looks, limber wit and capacity for feral intensity — and imprison him in a humorless character who shlubs through the picture in a baggy raincoat with a long face and a pronounced viciousness deficit.
Gibson is further burdened by the large part of the story that's devoted to Craven's undying love for his daughter. We see him gazing mournfully at photos of her and at home-video footage from her childhood, and we're moved at first. But then, jarringly, he begins speaking to her aloud. And then she starts speaking to him — and these scenes, with Emma's voice murmuring in out of nowhere, are so flatly set up, we wonder if some sort of supernatural element is being introduced. (It's not. I don't think.)
Campbell is an able action director (he directed 2006's "Casino Royale"). But apart from one terrific sequence — a startling drive-by assault — the shoot-ups and beat-downs here lack the sort of stylish punch that an action master like Paul Greengrass might have brought to them. The story begins to slog, the Northmoor machinations fail to surprise, and the dead Emma keeps refusing to stay dead — although at the end, in a scene of blazing silliness, she does kill the movie.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "44 Inch Chest," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Edge of Darkness."
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