Despite his public reverence for the New Testament, Mel Gibson will do anything for an excuse to not turn the other cheek. In the violent conspiracy revenge thriller Edge of Darkness, his first acting gig in eight years, Gibson plays Boston police detective Thomas Craven, who turns vigilante to punish the people behind the death of his only child, Emma (Bojana Novakovic). This isn’t so much a departure for Gibson as a grim distillation of all that came before. The formula, as always, is Make Mel Mad: Kidnap or kill his kid or wife, or kid and wife, or kid and wife and dog, and he will hurt you. The drama of the last decade has certainly hurt him: His face is not so much wrinkled as creviced by rage, his Aussie jauntiness long gone. After becoming one of the richest men in Hollywood and also a pariah, he’s stripped down to pure righteous anger.
Craven’s quest to avenge his lovely daughter has a kind of purity, too. Presumably there was a mother, but she’s never mentioned. She might have been a virgin birth, from the brow of her dad. Craven pointedly drinks only ginger ale and doesn’t have a personal life. He beats in people’s faces with no fear of consequences. (“I have nothing left to lose,” he snarls.) He also has recurrent visions of his daughter, both as a little girl and all grown up. (I think in the end they’re meant to be real — she has “crossed over” but isn’t gone.) The performance is a leap in one respect. He shambles around in a rumpled raincoat beside much taller actors, adopting a South Boston accent (it takes getting used to, but he’s Meryl Streep beside the actors in Mystic River), shifting easily into the role of a homicidal Beantown Columbo.
The loss of Craven’s daughter is grisly and shocking and launches the detective on a winding trail that leads to a nuclear power facility that might or might not have a weapons program and might or might not be connected to shadowy government elements. Danny Huston plays its head: He’s tall and unctuous and crisply tailored and carries ghoulish traces of the vampire lord he played in 30 Days of Night. He has a laughably sleek office atop the well-guarded nuke plant, with huge windows that overlook the Connecticut River. The movie has a wild card: Ray Winstone as some kind of independent contractor and maybe assassin who contacts Craven and reaches out instead of rubbing him out. They’re on opposite sides, but they share a disgust with the military-industrial complex and the emptiness of life without kids to bury you.
For all the mysticism and vaguely lefty speechifying, Edge of Darkness is still another meathead revenge picture. But it delivers its punches. Director Martin Campbell, coming off Casino Royale, has a style that’s blunt and bruising. The shootings are what violence mavens call “wet” — i.e., with maximum splatter. And every time you see a door or a window you’re primed for an unbelievably LOUD shotgun blast or explosion, so you’re always on edge. The audience I saw it with went nuts whenever Gibson taunted a bad guy, and hyper-nuts when he blew one away. Say what you will about Gibson, he has a gift for making bad vibes contagious.