Moviegoers off to see the new Mel Gibson movie "Edge of Darkness," a compressed two-hour version of the six-hour 1985 British TV miniseries, are likely to be doing so because their man Mel is back on the edge, on the boil and on the trigger after nearly eight years off as a top-lined screen actor. ("Signs" was his most recent starring role.)
But other factors work in this conflicted but entertaining thriller's favor. Among them: Ray Winstone as assassin-fixer-philosopher of mysterious employ, who quietly becomes the most intriguing character, and co-writer William Monahan's fabulous way with vaguely threatening doublespeak. My favorite quote, and I'm paraphrasing, comes from Danny Huston, who plays the head of a private nuclear concern and whose mere presence (Huston has played plenty of venal weasels) serves as an arrow over his own head labeled: Conspiracy starts here.
Walking and talking with a government official with whom he should not be walking and talking, Huston's character says: "I don't know what you're talking about. And surely you're not even saying it." Elsewhere, Winstone's character refers to himself, with a cool mixture of pride and shame, as having "made things unintelligible for the past 30 years." This is why Monahan won the Oscar for "The Departed," which shares this film's Boston setting and far-reaching sleaze: because he's a writer you notice but one who gets the job done.
Gibson's homicide detective Tommy Craven has a grown daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), who works as a researcher at the house of nukes known as Northmoor. (The name made more sense in the original teleplay, set in Yorkshire and starring the late Bob Peck.)
When an assassin's shotgun blast kills Emma before Tommy's eyes, everyone assumes the hit was meant for the cop. But when a grieving Tommy finds a pistol among Emma's possessions, he wonders why.
Before long, "Edge of Darkness" settles into a series of murderous attacks and reversals. Tommy strives, seething, to learn the truth (which the audience knows before he does) and take violent, bloody care of various political and corporate scuzzies who are exploiting some highly radioactive pursuits for personal gain. Kill someone's only child and what do you have? You have a righteous avenger role almost too well suited for Gibson's persona. Now that he's 54 and been through a lot, that famous face has become deeply creased, a little haunted and more interesting.
This is really two films. There's the Gibson slaughter-fest, which we have seen before. And there's the other film, the one more like the miniseries. Director Martin Campbell, who did such wonderful work on the recent James Bond reboot "Casino Royale," cannot linger long over any one cloak-of-darkness meeting the way he did when he had six-plus hours. He probably should have excised a father-daughter dream sequence or two. But by letting Winstone's ambiguous middleman share and in fact steal scenes from Gibson (it's scripted that way), "Edge of Darkness" hangs in there and fleshes out its '70s-style symphony of paranoia.
The best of the violence carries a brutal jolt. All in all, like the recent "State of Play" -- another pretty good strip-it-for-parts adaptation of a British miniseries -- Campbell's film offers not surprises exactly but craftsmanship and low, brute, cunning satisfactions.
Yes, the plot could've used one more twist or complication in the second half. But these things are easier analyzed than done.