Mel Gibson in 'Edge of Darkness' (Warner Bros.)

Bodies bob to the surface of a deserted river. A playful little girl is captured on home video. A troubled man waits for his daughter. Edge of Darkness, a powerhouse dramatic thriller directed by Martin Campbell, tends a bed of smoldering embers that occasionally, unexpectedly, explodes into a raging fire.

The largest ember is Craven, a Boston police detective. As played by Mel Gibson, Craven becomes a man on a mission only after his daughter is shot dead in front of his eyes. Before that, his life is a blank slate, more notable for the things that are missing rather than any sense of purpose. Unresolved questions follow him around like a lost puppy: why didn't he visit his only daughter? Why did he demonstrate so little interest in her career or her friends? What happened to his wife, evidently long gone from the scene? Why doesn't he have any friends? What kind of police detective is he?

From the evidence presented, Craven is a haunted loner with deep reserves of seething anger and brutal competence. The death of his daughter destroys him, as though he himself had absorbed the shotgun blast to the gut, but there's never any question that his own brand of justice will be served. First, though, he has to figure out who was trying to kill him.



Mel Gibson and Bojana Novakovic in 'Edge of Darkness'The mistaken assumption serves as a starting point for solving the mystery. On the surface, seasoned Detective Craven is a natural target for a violent assault. His daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic), a recent graduate of M.I.T., is, in her own words, simply a "glorified intern" at a large scientific research center in Massachusetts. Why would anyone want to kill such a charming young woman?

A generous supply of clues are swiftly dealt out. Emma coughed up blood before she and her father could even sit down to dinner. She says she has 'something to tell him' moments before she is murdered. Fellow police veteran Whitehouse (Jay O. Sanders) shows up afterwards, looking around suspiciously before entering the Craven home to comfort his old friend.

Craven quickly convinces his superiors that, as the apparent target, it is only logical that he remain on duty and investigate the case rather than taking the standard leave of absence after the murder of a close family member. Craven has no intention of sharing his findings, of course. He makes the rounds of Emma's friends, as discovered through her cell phone, beginning by breaking into the apartment of her boyfriend (Shawn Roberts). Each armed with a weapon, the "meet cute" ends in a draw, establishing a pattern for Craven's investigation: every step he takes toward solving the case will be painful for someone.

Danny Huston in 'Edge of Darkness'The investigation leads Craven to Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), the head of the research institute where Emma worked. Bennett is soft-spoken and slick, calmly explaining that yes, the facility deals with raw nuclear materials, but no, those materials are not used in making any type of weapon. We know at once that he's lying. Exuding quiet, oily menace, Huston imbues Bennett with the characteristics of a snake. He practically hisses when he asks Craven what it's 'really like' to feel responsible for the death of his daughter.

Craven also crosses paths with Jedburgh (Ray Winstone, in his best, charming, street-level gangster mode), a government "fixer" who emerges (literally) from the shadows. They warily size each other up, two fearless gunfighters who will stop at nothing, ready to empty their weapons into anyone who stands in the way and then walk away, without remorse. Under different circumstances, they might have become friendly sparring partners; in the case at hand, they keep a close eye on what the other is doing.

Eventually the investigation leads Craven into political intrigue on a wide scale, which interests him not at all. He is single-minded in his desire to punish those responsible for Emma's murder. That's it; he has no other motive.

As he drives the narrative forward, director Martin Campbell is not averse to sudden bursts of speed. But, really, the film plays more like a dramatic mystery than a traditional runaway thriller, unfolding its secrets in deliberate, unhurried fashion. Film editor Stuart Baird, who worked on Lethal Weapon and Campbell's Casino Royale among many others, surely deserves a share of the credit for the superb pacing. When shocking moments arrive, they are writ large; when small moments play out, they are finely tuned. Howard Shore's musical score nicely complements the action without drawing undue attention to itself.

Ray Winstone in 'Edge of Darkness'Campbell directed the source material, a six-episode BBC series written by Troy Kennedy Martin that originally aired in 1995. The transition to a feature-length film sometimes feels clumsy, even without the benefit of watching the original series and knowing what was preserved, what was omitted, and what was changed entirely. The script, credited to William Monaghan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell, leans too heavily on assumptions and coincidences, though the injections of rueful, hard-bitten humor are welcome: "That's illegal in Massachusetts." "Everything's illegal in Massachusetts."

From Craven's point of view, the dearly departed Emma makes intermittent appearances, but these are not well-integrated into the rest of the picture. Is Craven losing his mind? Or is he a sincere believer, communicating with the dead? Adding a spiritual / mystical element to a thriller, as the original series did, is a daring idea, which is why it's disappointing that it doesn't quite jell; it's more of a clashing cymbal than a truly harmonious instrument.

Edge of Darkness marks the return of Mel Gibson to the big screen after a prolonged absence. It's a star vehicle that makes clear he's still a commanding presence, able to summon up frightening emotions from the depth of his soul. And it's the first film in which it's readily apparent that he's a man of only average height. (It's notable especially in a couple of scenes with taller actors.) He's always seemed like an outsized personality, but here he's closer to an average man fighting against giants, David versus Goliath.

Of course, it's David with an automatic weapon instead of a slingshot, but it's the thought that counts.

Mel Gibson in 'Edge of Darkness'