After an eight-year absence from starring roles, Mel Gibson doesn't take long to put on his game face — grimly determined, streaked with fake blood, unfazed by advice to stay calm and gazing toward nasty revenge.
Mel is back, and Mad with a capital "M," in Edge of Darkness, another chance for his character to display devotion to family by blasting holes in bad guys. Revenge is supposedly a dish that's best served cold but this kind of payback feels twice warmed over.
Gibson plays Tom Craven, a Boston detective warmly welcoming his adult daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) for an impromptu visit. What happened to Emma's mother is never mentioned but Tom's later demeanor suggests she didn't fix his breakfast one morning and he offed her.
Emma is bothered by something she doesn't explain to Daddy or else the movie would only be 10 minutes long and settled by the legal system and media crusaders. She's also vomiting blood, which is nothing compared to her hemorrhaging after being blasted with a shotgun, in an ambush apparently aimed at her father. Of course that isn't the case, as Tom learns through the tired lone wolf cop (and this time it's personal) process.
What led to Emma's murder is a complicated jumble of Silkwood conspiracy, eco-terrorism, international arms trading and political and legal corruption requiring a flow chart to keep straight. At least twice in the film, someone tells Tom there's no way to comprehend what's happening, and they're absolutely right. Edge of Darkness is based on a BBC miniseries, with a script attempting to cram six episodes of intrigue into a single movie.
Director Martin Campbell — who helmed the BBC version — gamely attempts to inject the vitality he brought to Casino Royale into this talky cloak-and-dagger affair. The two styles don't mix well with such dense material and Gibson's stardom to be stoked. The casualty is coherence.
Whenever someone isn't spilling expositional beans — hesitating at precisely the best clues to keep the plot twisting — Tom snarls at anything that sounds like rational thought, and shoots people. He also has recurring flashbacks to Emma's childhood, and hallucinations that she's still around. Gibson is much more convincing as a killing machine than bereaved father.
Edge of Darkness does earn bad style points for being the first movie I recall in which someone is attacked with a bottle of radioactive milk, and Gibson's jarring catchphrase: "You had better decide whether you're hanging on the cross, or banging in the nails." Coming from the maker of The Passion of the Christ, that's a YouTube mashup waiting to happen.
Even with its faults, this movie is a smart choice for Gibson toward rebuilding an image that was tarnished in recent years by personal scandal, including a DUI arrest and tirade, and leaving his wife for a pregnant younger woman. Playing "Mad Mel," the bipolar avenger with the crosshairs stare, is his comfort zone, and the audience's, too.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.