Edge of Darkness (review)

Revenge Served Dull

It’s inevitable, it would seem, that when you take a six-hour miniseries made for British TV and boil it down to a two-hour American studio movie, a lot is going to be lost. And since we’re going from the BBC to Hollywood, it’s an easy guess that what will be lost will be the bulk of what made the original material six hours long in the first place: character stuff. Because even if Hollywood movies gave a damn about character as a primary motive for storytelling, there’s simply not a lot of room for character if you want to keep all the mystery and the bit of action that comprised all the not-character stuff in the source material.
What’s weird about this new Edge of Darkness, however, is that while much of the character stuff has indeed been sucked out, what’s left is suprisingly underpowered, a plodding police procedural that thinks that holding back on “action” makes it “serious” even in the absence of anything substantial to take its place. It’s always frustrating to see a movie that mistakes car chases and explosions for drama… but it turns out that it’s even more frustrating to see a film that doesn’t bother feel the need to sustain itself with even that level of phony drama.

The basic story is shared with the 1985 miniseries: a cop — here, Mel Gibson’s Tom Craven is a Boston homicide detective — witnesses the murder of his 20something daughter, Emma (here played by Bojana Novakovic: Drag Me to Hell, Seven Pounds), in an attack that at first he believes was targeting him. Once he scratches the surface of the crime, however, it begins to be obvious that the killer may have been gunning for Emma after all. And so Craven is off on the hunt for whoever it was who wanted his daughter dead, and for an explanation as to why anyone would want to kill a nice, harmless young lady like Emma.

So Craven is on the case and off the cop reservation, but not so much as you might expect from a Mel Gibson protagonist: there’s no “gimme back my son” moment here. (And more’s the pity, for it might have injected some temporary excitement.) Gibson (Signs, The Patriot) gets his now trademarked crazy on, but it’s kinda subdued, even at the end, when Craven gets to dish out some vigilante revenge that appears to be de rigueur for any movie today that wishes to impart a sense of any kind of justice being dispensed. The deeply cynical attitude of a movie such as this one may well mirror the zeitgeist — perhaps no one does trust any of our institutions anymore, and has good reason not to — which only makes it all the more depressing, and not in the least satisfying. When more than one of Craven’s fellow officers, including a superior, can assure him that they will do absolutely everything they can to solve his daughter’s murder because “this is a cop thing — officer involved,” it sounds less like a promise to Craven and more like a threat to the rest of us. It does seem as if screenwriters William Monahan (Body of Lies, The Departed) and Andrew Bovell, hamfistedly adapting the 1985 script by Troy Kennedy-Martin, want us to get revved on Craven’s grief-driven retribution, but in apparently seeking to avoid the cheap thrill such a story can deliver if pulled off in the right way, they’ve left us with nothing much beyond a sullen pessimism that does nothing to sour us on the real world it wants to criticize — we already know how bad things are — but instead sours us only on the movie itself. (How odd, too, to try to force a catchphrase out of “Everything’s illegal in Massachusetts,” which is uttered by two different characters in different situations. Also: the would-be villainy of some of what Danny Huston [X-Men Origins: Wolverine, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People], as Emma’s boss, is forced to say is downright bizarre. The dialogue is so poorly written in places as to boggle the mind… and the ear.)

Film and miniseries share a certain angry scoffing at the corporate and governmental misdeeds that turn out to be behind Emma Craven’s murder, but the miniseries — which is newly available on DVD, and highly recommended [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — was primarily driven by that Craven’s (played by Jurassic Park’s Bob Peck) posthumously relationship with his daughter (Joanne Whalley), as he discovers the woman she’d turned into as he investigates her murder. He talks to her, too, and she talks back, in a ghostly pas de deux in which we’re never quite sure whether she’s truly present in a supernatural way or whether Dad is merely hallucinating her in his grief. And that’s fine: it made for a delicate portrayal of a father-daughter relationship the likes of which we rarely see on film.

All of that is gone from this Edge of Darkness: Gibson’s Craven sees the little girl Emma once was haunting his memory from time to time, but that’s about it. And I can’t help but wonder whether director Martin Campbell thought he was simply restaging that 1985 miniseries, which he also directed, in all its solemn, odd quietude, without ever realizing that everything that made that version of the story work had been excised. We know Campbell knows how to make genuinely exciting movies — he gave us the enthralling Casino Royale and the huge fun of the Antonio Banderas Zorro movies — so I can’t imagine what other reason he might have to giving us something in this new Edge of Darkness that is so stultifying.

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