The ability to get angry on screen to really light a fire with your fury has been a defining characteristic of more than a few great movie stars (Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Russell Crowe). It's not a trait you really choose, either; it's one that chooses you. Mel Gibson was one of the chosen from the moment he first came to international prominence in Mad Max (1980). As Max, the cop–turned–two-lane-blacktop vigilante, he was a cocky kid in leather pants, just enjoying the ride, but when he cuffed a bad guy to an explosive, handed him a hacksaw, and said that he'd have just enough time to saw through his own ankle, Gibson established himself as a cold-eyed avenger who could bring an audience's blood to a righteous, happy boil. He's unleashed that rage countless times since, in Braveheart and Ransom and the Lethal Weapon films; even his infamous tabloid tirade showed us the dark demons of a star who'd made a point of revealing his demons on screen. So when you go to see Edge of Darkness, the new political revenge thriller starring Gibson as a Boston cop investigating his daughter's murder, you know who you're really waiting to see: Mad Mel.
Gibson looks older now, still lean and handsome but with cracked-leather skin and haunted eyes that give him a touch of Boris Karloff world-weariness. Early on, Gibson's Tom Craven picks up his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), at the train station and brings her to his home, but something is wrong: She keeps getting sick, and when they walk out the door to go to a doctor, a masked gunman blows her away. The authorities assume that the bullet was meant for her father, but Craven, a clean cop (he doesn't even drink), knows that it wasn't, and he sets about uncovering the life of the daughter he'd kept at arm's length.
Emma was a research assistant at Northmoor, a privately owned nuclear facility that looks like a cross between MIT and a James Bond villain's lair (the director, Martin Campbell, is the veteran Bond helmer who made Casino Royale and GoldenEye). It's the sort of place that can't be up to anything but dirty deeds done for maximum profit. Edge of Darkness is based on a British miniseries from 1985 (Campbell was its director), but as compressed and updated by screenwriters William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell, it's just a conventional, divertingly propulsive, borderline boilerplate corporate-high-jinks thriller.
Gibson speaks in a dry Boston accent and really gets the gruff, blunt working-class Boston Irish 'tude behind those inflections. Every time he interrogates someone, it's a nifty self-contained face-off, with Craven, an instinctive tactician, playing every suspect and witness just so. His daughter's boyfriend (Shawn Roberts), who knows but won't say what she was up to, needs to be slapped around a bit and so he is. The head of Northmoor, played by Danny Huston with his trademark widow's peak and amphibian leer (a more decadent echo of his father John Huston's), speaks in silky euphemisms, as he and Gibson engage in tasty power stare-downs. With each new scene, Craven's fuse burns a little shorter and hotter. Meeting the leader of Nightflower, a cult of leftist agitators who broke into Northmoor's top secret facility, he asks the dude to take off his glasses, then bashes him in the face. The efficiency of the brutality turns the moment into vicious comedy.
Edge of Darkness has nervous whistle-blowers, sleazy politicians out to protect their puppeteers, and hitmen who drive an anonymous black van that might as well be marked ''The Hitmen's Anonymous Black Van.'' The picture also has Ray Winstone, with his ironic Cockney civility, as a sinister government cleanup artist so oblique about his loyalties that he often seems to be on the side of the people he's strong-arming. What the film doesn't have is a political revelation we give a fig about. The more that Edge of Darkness reveals about the Corruption of America, the less it seems like anything but a conspiracy-of-the-week excuse to get Mel Gibson hot under the collar. His slow-burn fury keeps the movie going, but not enough to invest us in any justice beyond payback. B