“Did you shoot my daughtah?” is the question posed, in flat-voweled Bostonian, in the trailer for Edge of Darkness. And Mel Gibson, much-bereaved and much-vengeful, from Hamlet to Ransom to Revolutionary America, sets out to settle another score.
Gibson is Thomas Craven: veteran, homicide detective, lonesome widower. His daughter, a postgrad intern at a research and development firm in the Berkshires, is visiting when somebody fires a gun in front of his house. Craven, left lonelier, wants to find out who, the first link in a long succession of whos and whys that leads him up the food chain. As in the film's predecessor — a Yorkshire-set 1985 BBC serial, with Bob Peck as Craven — the investigation of what is supposedly an open-and-shut botched payback killing by an old collar opens into something much bigger, revealing a sweaty commingling of private and public sectors.
Director Martin Campbell, most famous for James Bond relaunches, is revisiting old material — as a hot-handed U.K. TV director, he shot the original six-part, six-hour cult-classic miniseries from a Troy Kennedy Martin script. For the film, mysteries unspool more quickly, while peripheral characters and “color” scenes without expository purpose — Peck bawling on the M1, Brit ballroom competition Come Dancing on TV — have disappeared.
What's left is propulsive and streamlined, with Craven more single-mindedly focused on finding and damning the guilty. When Peck went to question his daughter's boyfriend, it was a psychological duel, the uncomfortably intimate father-daughter relationship a jealous undercurrent. When Gibson makes the same visit, it's for a knife fight (his paternal love now purged of anything unseemly). This change in character may not have been intended — there have been rumors of reshoots to punch up the action at the studio's behest — but this Darkness is a vigilante movie. Which isn't to say it's simply a downgrade from Anglo sophistication to Hollywood slam-bang. Given the film's focus on bereavement — it is literally haunted by the dead — bodies drop with actual weight here. And the culmination is that rare shootout that can truly be called cathartic. (I suddenly remembered that one of the screenwriters, William Monahan, who also wrote The Departed, was a student of the Jacobean revenge play.)
Kennedy Martin's Darkness unfolded in the shadows of Cold War espionage and the upped-ante arms race of the Reagan-Thatcher era. The 2010 incarnation is still political: Danny Huston's man-behind-the-curtain CEO disguises his rogue dealings in “jihadist dirty bombs” as experiments in clean, green energy. He has pictures shaking hands with Bush II and Nancy Pelosi and, in what would've seemed a sci-fi touch a year ago, one of the implicated parties signing off on his private “security fiefdom” is a Republican senator from Massachusetts.
Some of the off-the-record Corridors of Power stuff is well-done — Huston's doublespeak meetings with Denis O'Hare's consultant, backroom rewrites of reality — but the scenes feel haphazardly placed, not quite of the same movie as the Gibson revenge flick. Ray Winstone's Jedburgh, a bon vivant government troubleshooter with ambiguous loyalties, who consults on and monitors Craven's investigation, never quite integrates either. The 1985 Jedburgh was a CIA good ol' boy in London — and while it's fun to watch Brit Winstone and Gibson trying to out-heavy one another, the transatlantic role-reversal doesn't quite work; most Americans in 2010 don't fear the crown in the way the average Briton of '85 was concerned about American influence. At times, it seems as if Jedburgh's sole mission is to deliver the script's more portentous lines: “We live a while, and then we die sooner than we planned.”
Gibson has been absent from the American screen since 2004. He has squandered his industry clout with risks both planned (The Passion of the Christ) and, assumedly, not (the passion for conspiracy theory). One wonders — certainly Warner Bros. suits will — whether offscreen events have made it impossible for audiences to swallow him as a character. Yet Gibson still knows what he does best, as a star should, and creates tension just from never letting the tears poised in his eyes fall. Onscreen much of the time, thicker and more creased than you remember, he can make this rather unshapely movie seem taut.